This is a repulsive and unwieldy work of art.
Writer/Director Darren Aronfsky works with other skilled technicians to craft a narrative which breaks down the literal into the metaphorical and vice versa, with feminine kindness (played by Jennifer Lawrence) used up by masculine ambition (played by Javier Bardem)…and that’s just one way of looking at the story. From the opening frame, you’re locked into the constraining point of view of the movie’s tragic protagonist, and you can only watch as their environment (and by extension her being) flourishes, gets invaded, is torn apart, and finally anihiliated over the course of an abusive relationship. This movie is blunt, nuanced, ugly, gorgeous, cryptic and obvious many times over. And it may feel too long to some and to others not long enough as it makes broad jabs at classism, the cult of the artist, and the betrayal of love. But goddamn do I have this movie stuck in my mind.
I’m writing this all out, right after the movie’s disastrous opening weekend box office (though to be frank, unless you are a member of the cast/crew who worked on the movie or a member of Paramount’s board of directors, who gives a shit?) Describing this movie’s ambitions, hits and misses is like being stockbroker on the day of a market crash. There are only so many things you can notice before it all collapses upon itself. Watching the movie fills you with fascination, horror and finally a yawning emptiness, with all yearnings of catharsis denied by the movie’s loopy climax. But while the movie does have an abusive relationship at its center, its use of magical realism can come off as a haughty boast of the moviemaker’s ingenuity at the expensive of narrative strength.
But what of the cast? Well, this is one of those movies where it can be difficult to guage performances by normal metrics, due to how everyone gets reduced to their most bare traits. Javier Bardem seems to have no trouble embodying his role as the destructive creative type courting the love of many while taking the love of one for granted, except while the movie is at points ambiguous and ambitious, that point stays constant (and for a reason). Other supporting cast members like Michelle Pfifer, Ed Harris and Kristen Wiig have great moments, sure, but they’re just that. Which means that Jennifer Lawrence ends up carrying a lot of the weight…at first. It’s not that she’s bad, it’s that the movie’s fatalism and magical realism break her talents down into a visceral, reactionary performance, a far cry from what would be classified as, “actors moments” as shown in montages you sometimes see during awards show broadcasts. So while she does her job, her character is all but given a giant neon sign reading, “I represent beauty as neglected and degraded by an ungrateful bastard and the world they inhabit”, so it can be difficult to gauge how much of this is her effort and how much of it is just the director and company working with or around it.
Which brings us to the sad point of what this all means. Using feminity as a vessel for metaphors about the fall from grace, corruption, ugliness and pain is the oldest fucking trick in the book, and I’m tired of it. It’s not that stories of feminine characters going through struggle cannot be great in their own right. Characters like Harley-Quinn of the, DC universe (at least when the creators don’t do awful shit) to Ofeila of, “Pan’s Labyrinth” to the women of “Daughter’s of the Dust” embody femininity with degrees of vulnerability and strength. Not every woman has to be Imperator Furiosa, Wonder Woman or Ripley to be worthwhile. But one has to contend with how feminine and feminine-coded people are under siege in everyday life, reinforced by stories told on a cultural scale. “mother!”, for all of its daring and ambition, only meets that contention partially. Telling a creation myth with shades of the modern world from the point of view of said myth’s eventual victim is a daring move, one that mirrors the pit of despair the faithful face in 2016’s adaptation of, “Silence”. But for all of Aronfsky and company’s artistic daring, it all still leans on traditional understandings of beauty and sympathy, and is felled by such. Sure, our protagonist gets pushed around, neglected and destroyed by a mad poet, but she is a traditional motherly type with a thin figure and just the right amount of melanin to prevent the curmudgeon in the theater from wondering if she was asking for it. Granted, plenty of black, asian and latino folk are involved in this madness (mostly as extras), but in the world of, “mother!” there is only room for one sympathetic archetype. Though to give the movie some credit, there is one gut-wrenching final scene involving her and Javier Bardem that will give the dakimakura-grasping 4chan Nazi a cause for self-reflection. Maybe.
“mother!” is a mess of ambition that sticks in one’s mind like a virus. It’s magic realism is so unwieldy and broad they feel like set pieces for a commericial that would probably play on the forbidden channel in, “Videodrone”, while its central drama is so suffocating and ugly that those with any sense of empathy or at least memories of manipulation and abuse will want to head for the door. But when the two elements melt into each other, they create an immense impact. Human history and myth are just parts of this movie’s elaborate blender of themes and motiffs, and seeing the movie veer from one thing to the next will probably test your patience, endurance and stamina. Having said that, I would be happy to get into long arguments about what it all means and whether it is a masterpiece or a disaster with other people.
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