Friday, 29 September 2017

Movie Review: Mother! (2017)

Over the course of these reviews, I’ve talked at great length about directors who rank up there with my absolute favourites: Edgar Wright, Christopher Nolan, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Steven Soderbergh, even directors who became my favourites as I wrote more about them here like Denis Villeneuve. Today, however, we’re talking about my No. 1 spot, the filmmaker that I hold in the highest regard above all others: Darren Aronofsky. The reasons for which are rather simple: His filmography is full of truly great films, save for Black Swan but that’s just down to personal taste, and he fulfills my liking for psycho-thrills more consistently than any other filmmaker I’ve come across. His approach to all things spiritual and psychological appealed to me even before my critical awakening, and to this day he continues to impress me. Without question, I was looking forward to this one… and yet the initial opinions on it (both from critics and audiences) are the most divisive I’ve seen for any film in recent years. Well, time to cut into this thing, and be warned that this is going to be a bumpy ride. This is Mother.

The plot: Acclaimed writer He (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live a comfortable domestic life. However, once He lets a Man (Ed Harris) and his own wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) stay at their house, She begins to worry about what the state of Herself and the house that She built, and as more people turn up to the house, unbridled chaos is about to ensue.

The cast here is incredibly strong, which they’d have to be considering not a single character we see is even named. Lawrence works very well as our focal point character, working along the same lines as her role in Joy with how the audience’s near-permanent connection to her creates a bulk of the film’s drama, or thrills in this case. Bardem so very easily could’ve been a simple villain role, given the actions he enables throughout the narrative, but his acting combined with his dialogue makes him feel a lot more grounded than one would expect from a film as frequently batshit as this. Harris and Pfeiffer as the married couple who kicks off the larger story fit well, and Pfeiffer’s scenes with Lawrence end up revealing even more thematic avenues in a film already looking like an intellectual gridlock. I know that sounds bad, but trust me: For someone like me who needs to read into subtext, this is very much a positive. Domhnall and Brian Gleeson as their sons add a lot to the Biblical subtext of the film, forming another layer that the audience has to dig through, Wiig in an uncharacteristic turn goes from docile to outright vile in the space of a few scenes, something she pulls off unnervingly well, and Stephen McHattie as… honestly, I’m not even sure what he is but his presence definitely brings a certain touch to the overall production.

The thing that always gets to me about so-called ‘art films’ is that they seem to serve as their own apology for not engaging the audience. Rather than being entertaining with deeper meanings as the follow-up, most of them tend to exist solely for their own “meaning” and little else; it’s because of this that I hold such contempt for the works of Terrance Malick. As such, before getting into the thick wall of theme behind all this, I want to ease everyone into it and start with how it works as your standard psycho-thriller. And in that respect, this film works incredibly well. For a start, the audience being anchored to Lawrence for the majority of the film means that everyone happening around her, and even to her, makes that harder an impact through that connection. For another, as the story carries on, the once-idyllic beginnings give way to absolute and crushing chaos the likes of which some audiences may not be able to take. How crushing? Try “murder and cannibalism” kind of crushing. This so easily could have descended into farce, and it still might for some, but between Aronofsky’s laser-guided focus, Jóhann Jóhannsson emphasizing clinking and clanging sounds to disorient even before the chaos begins, and DOP Matthew Libatique’s eye for visuals and framing, this still feels grounded enough for the more gruesome and harrowing moments to connect.

The main thing that attracts me to Aronofsky’s work is down to his approach to psychological narrative. He operates mainly within ‘psycho-spirituality’; looking into the higher ideals that some people aspire towards and the resulting psychological effect those ideals can have. Some of his films deal with this more literally in terms of spirituality and philosophy, like the Kabbalah musings of Pi and the Biblical interpretations of Noah, while others are more figurative and personal, like The Wrestler showing a man wanting to retain his former glory and Black Swan showing a woman needing to attain any glory at any cost. This film seems to meet somewhere in the middle. On one hand, it is chockful of Biblical references and allusions that add surprisingly engaging textures to the larger product, and end up giving a lot more weight to the film’s bigger aspirations. On the other, with the way it highlights Her want for a peaceful and quiet existence and His want for validation for his work as a poet, it keeps personal ideals in the picture as well. Where this gets interesting is, fittingly enough, when the film itself gets interesting: The inclusion of more and more people into the house.

As the numbers build, we see an increasing sense that these are people who identify heavily with His words (each for their own reasons, as said point-blank by Him at one point) but before too long, their obsession with the genius of the person saying and writing them begins to overshadow the point of it all. As trite as this sounds, this film’s potential fate as a cult film beloved by a select few is rather fitting for a film that contains so much literal cult mentality; a zealotry that gives way to the film’s more disgusting moments, and I’m not just talking about the gore here. Between Pfeiffer’s conversations with Her and Her seeming inability to keep control of things, and the rather vile things said back at Her in turn, highlights a certain Biblical sentiment regarding the treatment of women. I feel stupid pointing this out but when I say “highlight”, I don’t mean “endorse”; the characters being possessive and overall sexist towards Her are framed as the shitheels that they are. Add to this Her becoming a literal mother, and the remarks made at her trying to get to that point in the first place, and you have another layer to break through.

What does it mean to ‘create’? Whether it’s biological, psychological, theoretical or literal, what is the result of ‘creation’? Well, here, we get a few examples of that. On the surface, we have Him trying to find that spark to get him writing again, as if creating written work is something he must do; a common mindset with the more artistically inclined. Below that, we have His writings that are created and given out to the world, only for the world to warp them and turn them into something anathema to the original intent, eventually with catastrophic results. I’m sure a bit of Aronofsky’s own fears were poured into this, combined with some mild self-deprecation given we are shown a story from the point-of-view of the partner of a narcissistic auteur. Below that, we have a Biblical retelling, a showing of how the words of the Highest Authority can be twisted by Man, turning messages of good and true creation into vile and unrepentant destruction.

And further below that still, we have a story about people being given tremendous treasures, who end up taking more than they have any right to due to not having a hand in making any of it. Sounds a bit environmentalist which, considering the real-world climate (both literally and figuratively) has shown rather destructive forces at work, makes this feel uncomfortably relevant right now. Hell, it might even have a touch of colonialism in there as well, with the idea of taking possessions and land from a place where neither rightfully belongs to the takers. Even for someone who obsesses over film like I do, that’s a lot of material to pull out of a single feature. For there to be this much to work with, especially considering Aronofsky reportedly wrote the script on his own in a scant five days (thankfully it wasn’t six days, or else the Biblical connotations would have overloaded), either I’ve been chasing shadows over the course of this review or this film is one of the most sophisticated attempts at any kind of story, let alone psychological horror, I’ve yet come across. For all I know, it could be both.

All in all... wow. When the trailers first dropped for this movie, all of one thought came into my head: “This is going to be a retooling of Rosemary’s Baby, isn’t it?” Well, more so than any other time I’m likely to say this, I am thrilled to be proven wrong. The acting is outstanding, the production design may get a little too close for comfort in a number of ways but still delivers on visceral thrills, and the writing contains so much subtext and deeper meaning that I could likely spend a whole other article breaking everything down in-depth. As someone whose passion is dissecting cinema, this is the kind of film that I was put on this earth to write about. However, with that said, this is not only dense like a dwarf star made of mochi balls but it’s also very demanding of its audience, both to understand it and to take it seriously; not everyone is going to accept this, even at face value as a thriller. It carries the same divisive nature as the rest of his filmography, and with the consensus being so mixed, it’s ultimately down to everyone to make up their own minds on the situation. If any of this sounds interesting to you, or you have that David Lynch-ian taste for dream logic yarns, then I suggest at least giving it a try. If this sounds like pretentious twaddle (which could just as easily apply to my own writing as the film itself), then that’s probably the reaction you’ll get from it.

As for me, this is my new favourite film of the year. As much as I loved David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, I genuinely feel I am more likely to revisit this film in the future, if for no other reason than to pick up on more little details that reveal more of the genius that I saw when I first watched this feature. Yes, even with how much I’ve written here, I know that there’s more to find and there’s heaps of other pundits already hard at work on doing just that.

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