TIFF FILM REVIEW: Jennifer Lawrence Delivers Gritty Performance in Wild Ride “mother!”
The title of the new film by Darren Aronofsky, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is purposefully stylized in lowercase letters but with an exclamation point—mother!, not Mother! It’s a simple but effective trick that distills the essence of the contradictory, at times frustrating, and always wild ride that is the movie. An obtuse while straightforward allegory for muses and inspirations, an analogy to certain Biblical moments, the film grabs you as the camera grabs Ms. Lawrence’s face from the get go, and very seldom lets go until the final, exhilarating moments.
The main characters, who shall and do remain nameless, are Lawrence’s Mother and Javier Bardem’s Poet. The two of them live in seclusion in the middle of a vast field, occupying a large, ornate home that Mother has been tending to, for a while it seems, while the Poet tries to find inspiration for his latest missives. Mother is subdued, mostly quiet, and quite understated, whispering softly, her voice crackling at the need for any confrontation. The Poet, for his part, is clearly self-absorbed and self-obsessed, worried equal parts about a shiny, fiery mysterious object he keeps in his study and equal parts about himself, though sometimes paying attention to Mother.
Still, she is a devoted and loving wife, pouring most of her energy into fixing up the home after an apparent fire destroyed large parts of it before she was in the picture. The home in this film is the clearly central motif, the obvious allegory for the self, the soul, the mind. Mother and Poet live in peaceful tranquility within it, and that is just how she likes it.
Quickly, however, a Man (Ed Harris) mysteriously appears, and things become bizarre in Mother’s home. The Man, whom you could call Adam, does not respect her boundaries and, to the contrary, seems to revel in crossing them. But he is a devoted fan of the Poet, which makes the latter purposefully oblivious to the Man’s transgression against his muse wife. Things don’t get much better from there. Soon the man has invited his wife, the Woman (Michelle Pfeifffer) into the secluded residence, much to the amusement of the Poet and the vexing of the Mother, whose idyll continues to be shattered and challenged. And, by the way, you could call The Woman Eve. Hint hint. As the first act professes and becomes more intense more unwelcome characters enter the picture, including the Man and Woman’s Oldest Son (The Force Awakens’ Domhall Gleeson). The first act gets wilder and wilder, stranger and stranger, as Mother grows increasingly helpless, frustrated, and flummoxed at the growingly tense situation.
I do not want to give out more plot details than I already have, other than to say that, after a pause, the second half of mother! takes on a similar structure as the first, but to the nth power. And Aronofsky is clearly still smarting from the last time he depicted the Biblical flood on the big screen. Essentially the story is about the loss of one’s voice, the desire to speak while not being listened to, and the shattering of order. Things break frequently in Mother’s house, and with each new shattering comes a renewed sense of anxiety and fickleness. Aronofsky is expertly toying with you of course—setting up barriers, lines of purity, only to cross them, jumble them, make you uncomfortable with chaos and disorder.
As Mother’s world crumbles and goes wild around her, she must compete with an increasing array of individuals that are pining for The Poet’s attention. She has much to offer but feels unable to as her self gets further drowned out in a sea of madness. At times, the movie devolves into some of Aronofsky’s stranger fare, including his much-maligned The Fountain. There is strange imagery, recurring visions, mysteriously expanding blood splotches, and a scary tunnel that seems to lead to somewhere ominous. It becomes clear that something is not quite right—in fact, several things are not—and that there is a fantastical, dreamlike quality to the entire situation. The plot builds into a stressful mystery from which the Poet’s attitude becomes increasingly harder to distill, for the viewers and for Mother, thus raising the stakes even further. You will be pining to figure out just what it all means, what is going on.
Do not worry, even though it seems like Aronofsky is going to leave you hanging, he does not. Although you may have wished that he had, especially if you are not used to his crazier work. mother! is quite definitely quite out there, and if you accused him of being heavy-handed, I would not stand in your way. But his chaotic method works here in ways we had not seen since Requiem for a Dream, increasing with a loud crescendo of madness that drives you a little crazy but keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
He is helped tremendously by the able and guttural performance by Ms. Lawrence, who delivers a career best as the innocent but eventually demonic lead character. Her plight becomes quickly our own, as Aronofsky is clearly using her as an effective muse, at times clinging obsessively to her visage on the canvas. The supporting cast is good as well, but only she has the pivotal transformational moments.
Artists, auteurs, great creators frequently speak of muses, of their tortured relationship with them, of the difficulty of conjuring them, and of the fractious nature of the exercise of having one. Darren Aronofsky has made a movie about such a concept, projecting both his own whims and anxieties into the movie, as a great director does. By letting himself all in into his movie, while telling the story of just one such muse, he effectively opens up a window into his—perhaps slightly disturbed—mind. The sincerity is appreciated and the trick welcome as an alternative voice in modern American cinema.