Movie Review: mother!

mother posterI have another name for this movie.

Yes, it starts with mother! But it ends with a word you can’t say on television that Samuel L. Jackson likes. A lot.

This is one of the most astoundingly ponderous and pretentious films I’ve seen in years. Director Darren Aronofsky can be hit or miss, and this is perhaps his biggest miss ever. It’s like he took the reactions to Noah, in which critics and audiences did not like his retelling of the story of the biblical flood, and said, “Oh, you hated that? Great, well now I’m going to do it to THE ENTIRE BIBLE.”

This is incredibly unfortunate, for a movie that is spectacularly acted and meticulously filmed. The film follows Jennifer Lawrencemarried to Javier Bardem, a poet suffering from writers’ block. When unexpected houseguests Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, they begin to cause problems, as do their children, played by siblings Domhnall  and Brian Gleeson. But Bardem’s poet can’t get enough of the attention they lavish on him for his talent, and despite his wife’s protestations to send the guests away and the damage they do to their house, more and more guests arrive. There is supposedly a metaphor in here for the biblical Genesis story, which eventually muddles through the arrival of a Messianic child and an eventual apocalypse, but it’s too ponderous and clumsily told that the metaphor collapses under its own weight.

Even the title mother! is pretentious and offputting. It literally shouts at us with its exclamation mark. And then emphasizes its lower-case m so we know this is a Very Serious Important Move about Very Serious Things, like a college sophomore who decides their name shouldn’t be capitalized so they can stand out in the crowd and show off how self-effacing they are.

This film is the textbook definition of laying it on too thick, with a steaming side of heavy hands. And, astoundingly, at the same time, it is hella confusing for the first two-thirds of the film! As an audience member coming in, you’re left wondering exactly what is going on or what you’re supposed to be taking away from this.

The themes are all over the place. Is this movie about the erasure of the divine feminine from Christianity? Is it about the lack of respect for women and the creative, nurturing force? Is this about the environment and Mother Earth / Gaia? Is this about the creative process and the relationship between artist and audience? Is it a horror movie? Are the events depicted on screen actually happening, metaphor, or some sort of surrealistic nightmare?

Apparently the answer to all of these is yes. And no. To quote Janeane Garofalo in the cult classic Mystery Men, You’re not well-liked. You’re abrasive and off-putting. You try and say pithy things, but your wit is a hindrance and so, therefore nothing is provocative.It’s just mixed metaphors.”

When you take a classic, beautifully woven epic with multiple themes like Les Miserables or Anna Karenina or The Godfather, whether the medium is the page, the stage, or the screen, the skilled autuer will fully develop those themes and make them accessible at multiple levels.

With mother!, Aronofsky doesn’t fully develop any of them, and so the film in trying to say everything, in fact, says nothing. This leaves even the most ardent lover of film confused is not a sign of brilliance. It is a sign of failure.   

And where the film really strikes out is in its attempts to have a message of feminism, it mostly just ends up glorifying violence towards and erasure of women. I’m sorry, but you can’t be a feminist movie if you can’t even pass the Bechdel Test. It’s a fairly low bar, and they didn’t even manage to get over that.

Even more creepy is the way the camera follows Jennifer Lawrence throughout the movie. Wearing an incredibly sheer nightgown and no underwear for much of the film, she is intentionally lit to repeatedly show off her nipples. The camera follows her from behind with more shots of her butt than a Michael Bay movie. (And can we point out that the movie would be 40 minutes shorter if it didn’t incessantly follow her movement throughout the house, padding an already ponderous picture?)

And then in the final climax of the film, she is brutally attacked, her clothing ripped, exposing her bare breasts. . .  in a rape scene. No. No. No. No. NO.

Aronofsky has publicly stated that we have been destroying our mother earth with our presence– message received. But to take it a step further to depict it on screen as an actual rape contributes to rape culture by not only seemingly glorifying/fetishizing the moment but also by lessening the impact of the epidemic of sexual assault in our country. I even bristle at the too-easy-to-make metaphor of pollution, climate change, etc “raping Mother Earth.” It doesn’t elevate a call to action, but it does lessen the impact of actual sexual assault. That being said, mother!’s final fiery apocalypse fueled by combusting oil and coal is a metaphor worth exploring– it’s just unfortunate that it is too glibly conflated with violence towards women that its impact is lessened.

It’s arguable that mother! wants to teach us something about the important place for women, but all we’re left with is a glorification of her erasure, abuse, and ultimate place as an adjunct to the man. And [spoiler alert, but IDGAF] at the end of the film, we also find out that her special, sacred role is ultimately replaceable, and she can be consumed in apocalyptic destruction and the ultimate in self-effacement and annihilation, and just as easily replaced by another woman.

Nice job, Darren Aronofsky. You took a movie about women, put your girlfriend in it, and made it all about you– the ultimate in white male “feminism.” And you bet those quotation marks are ironic.

And if you were trying to make a message about the environment, you absolutely failed– showing that our earth is completely replaceable. It isn’t. As an environmentalist myself, that implication goes beyond being problematic to dangerous.

What’s most infuriating is I really really really wanted to like this movie. It has some amazing elements in it that, if properly developed, could have made something cool. The environmental message is absolutely necessary and poignant, especially given the events of the last few weeks. A message about art and audience would have been cool. Something that was actually feminist would have been amazing. And Aronofsky’s visual sense is right on point here. He masterfully uses his setting to create an emotional response. I can name only a handful of other films that came out this year as competently shot/composed as this. (Detroit, Your Name, Get Out, Dunkirk) But someone needed to sit him down and tell him he was being self-indulgent and an idiot.

This is that Jerry Seinfeld joke that the original title for Tolstoy’s novel was War: What is it Good For? If Tolstoy had published that joke draft instead of War and Peace, we would laugh about how terrible that book is. mother! is that underdeveloped potential with an epic that deserves to be told in a more cogent fashion.

1 out of 5 stars

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