Aronofsky tried and failed to tell a story about "female empowerment."
Photos courtesy of Paramount
Mother! is a movie in which Jennifer Lawrence goes through a lot of shit. So much shit, even, that by the end of the film, you'll feel almost as used and abused as she does. Darren Aronofsky's latest work is an ugly amalgamation of his entire filmography: Here you can find the paranoid strains of Pi (1998), the hallucinatory chaos of Requiem for a Dream (2000), the unraveling woman of Black Swan (2010), and even the Biblical narrative of his last film, Noah (2014). The final result? Too much—even for Aranofsky's standards.
As a young, doting housewife, Lawrence's unnamed Mother—initially childless—spends her days renovating a beautiful home she shares with her poet husband (Javier Bardem). The facade of their idyll life breaks early. As she paints the walls, deciding between earthy grays and mustard yellows—both unnervingly bleak—she starts to sense that the house itself is a living entity. When she puts her hand against the wall, it pulsates, as if breathing. And later, a bloody spot on the floor keeps turning into a gaping hole, with sound design that heightens these effects.
In these moments, it's hard not to draw lines to the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, a seminal feminist text from 1892 written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In it, the female narrator believes there are women trapped behind the yellow wallpaper in her room, and by the end, that she has become one of them. The story is interpreted as criticism against patriarchal control and the silencing of women—but the parallel in this movie is purely coincidental, apparently. Producer Scott Franklin expressed surprise at the frequent comparison. "There's been a number of people who had mentioned that to us and for being so steeped in literature knowledge, it's odd that none of us had read it," he told Broadly.
However, Aronofsky was always interested in telling a story about "female empowerment," Franklin said. "Empowerment" here is quite the misleading word, as you'll feel none of it while watching Mother brutally beaten and exploited, especially in the movie's climactic sequence—whether that feels gratuitous is up to the viewer, though its producers argue otherwise. "I think it's pretty obvious the empathy lies with Jennifer's character," said producer Ari Handel.
Watch: Jennifer Lawrence and Her New Film 'Mother!'
Half of the film is shot in closeups of Lawrence's face, so this movie truly revolves around her and what she goes through. It gives the illusion that we'll find out more about who she is, but we really only know Mother through what she means to her husband, and the crowds of people he lets into their home without her permission. Mother! is effective at driving up stress levels and pushing buttons. As people, especially men, keep insulting Mother, making lewd comments, objectifying her, and underestimating her, viewers start to question what more Aronofsky is trying to say here, except, "That's bad."
Mother isn't trapped in a wall, but her entire existence is within the confines of the house—she doesn't step foot outside the property—and her life's purpose revolves around it, too. "We spend all our time here, I want to make it paradise," she says at one point. Aronofsky has been vocal about his passion for environmental work, so the allegory is pretty obvious: Lawrence's Mother is Mother Nature, and this film is about how we mistreat her.
"Ultimately it's a cautionary tale if you recognize what is happening to this character, her torment, and the lack of respect for this character in her home," Handel said. "This is what we're doing in our home." Everyone walks over Mother, each one more cruelly than the last. First, it's a mysterious guest, an orthopedic surgeon (Ed Harris), then it's his callous wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, a standout in the movie), who overstays her welcome and asks prying questions about Mother's sex life. After that, it's the mysterious couple's sons (played by real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) who come flinging through the door fighting over a will, leaving even more of a mess for Mother to clean up.
Anyone who's gone to Sunday School may pick up on the guests representing early key figures in Genesis: the doctor as Adam, his wife as Eve, and their sons as Cain and Abel. The house could be seen as the Garden of Eden, and later a sink leak driving out guests is a whole lot like the flood in the story of Noah's ark. (In the final act, Aronofsky takes it all the way to the New Testament, not only with Body of Christ elements but also the apocalyptic Book of Revelation.) But does that make Bardem's husband figure God? He's certainly not providing unconditional love, but he does contain the punishing and creative sides of "Him" (which, by the way, is how Bardem's character is credited). Metaphors are wringed to death in Mother!, yet many feel unresolved, or not thought out all the way through.
Aronofsky has never known the meaning of subtlety and watching Mother! makes you feel like he's beaten you over the head and dragged you across the house while you claw at the wooden floors. It's hard not to watch Jennifer Lawrence whisper-beg, "Please let me go" and not feel the same. Perhaps even more interesting—or alarming, you pick—is that the film also works as a metaphor for artists and their muses, especially since Lawrence actually dates Aronofsky. By the end of Mother!, Aronofsky struggles with how to resolve this grand statement he set out to make. What can be lauded, however, is the complete earnestness in which he executed this undercooked (or is it overcooked?) vision: Aronofsky tried very, very, hard, and it shows. Sometimes, it just showed a little too much.