A little-acknowledged flaw in the great works of cinema’s professional alienators, your Michael Hanekes, your Lars Von Triers, is that they never make it into the multiplexes. Their outré antics are confined to the arthouses, where they play to audiences who are very much in the business of not being alienated; audiences who can be counted on only to laugh at unexpected moments, signalling to their fellow highbrows just how much they appreciate the boundaries being pushed with such sophistication. It is a rare and intriguing event, therefore, when an uncompromising work of punter-baiting like Darren Aronofsky’s insane Mother! finds itself out in the wild, and is given free rein to properly confound the masses.
Probably not since the trailers for The Artist skirted around the fact they were advertising a silent picture has any marketing campaign so brazenly misled the public: from the jump-scare TV spots to the Rosemary’s Baby-quoting poster you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mother! is nothing more than an elegant psychological thriller.
Aranofsky himself has seemed happy to let you think that, describing it as an old-fashioned home-invasion movie, albeit one with a save-the-environment twist. Of course, certain warnings should have been heeded from the start: that gruesome teaser poster, for instance, featuring Jennifer Lawrence clutching her own disembowelled heart, suggested early on that we probably weren’t going to end up in Gone Girl territory.
The film is a hectoring, unpleasant, brutal dig at humanity that implicates the audience in its worst excesses. Michael Haneke would be delighted.
Likewise the commitment to complete secrecy about the content turned out not to be concern about revealing a plot-twist, but an act of misdirection all of itself: the twist, such as it is, being that the film is not a thriller at all: it’s a polemic; a religious allegory; a hectoring, unpleasant, brutal dig at humanity that implicates the audience in its worst excesses. It’s no wonder market research firm CinemaScore has registered a rare F-grade from disgruntled cinemagoers. Michael Haneke would be delighted.
The film opens in a feverish register and only escalates from there. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in an isolated Victorian mansion with ‘Him’ (Javier Bardem). He is a poet who writes his compositions on parchment using a quill pen. Despite this he is apparently very successful. Mother occupies herself by rebuilding their home after it was ravaged by a fire. She says she wants to create a paradise, and seems to be physically at one with the building: if she leans in close to the walls and closes her eyes, she can even feel its very heartbeat.
Into her apparent idyll appears ‘Man’ (Ed Harris), a mysterious drifter who turns up at the front door one night. He claims to have mistaken the house for a B&B, but it quickly transpires he’s a worshipful fan of Him, who in turn responds well to the attention. He invites Man to stay, much to Mother’s disapproval.
After a bad night, in which Mother observes an unpleasant looking injury in Man’s back – right about where a rib would be – the trio are joined by ‘Woman’ (a magnificently poisonous Michelle Pfeiffer). The couple adore Him and become obsessed with a strange and beautiful gem in His office at the top of the house, but they treat Mother with disrespect. After disobeying His one request, they are forbidden from His office. Their two sons turn up (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) and get into a violent scrap; one of them is banished from the house; the blood of the other seems to melt through the floor, revealing an old-fashioned furnace in the basement…
Now, in retrospect, it seems clear where all of this is going, but I’ll have to admit that, like some of the other rock-star critics – Richard Brody of the New Yorker included – I remained more or less oblivious to all of these Genesis, Garden of Eden, spare-rib, Cain and Abel allusions.
In my – our – defence, Aronofsky does obfuscate the schemata with his usual motifs of paranoia and mental breakdown: the mysterious yellow powders that Mother is frequently seen mixing into water and drinking help establish a classic ‘is this really happening’ vibe. Having downed them, she is prone to unsettling visions, like weird fleshy lumps in the toilet, and the people she interacts with keep replying with frustrating non sequitors. Meanwhile, Jóhann Jóhannsson incredible sound design lends a further sense of unreality: the powders fizzle at top volume; the ting of a tapped glass extends unnaturally for many moments.
the final thirty minutes of Mother! are going to keep Film Studies departments in Masters theses for decades to come
As it turns out, however, these are nothing but macguffins designed to keep theologically illiterate buffoons like myself interested while Aranofsky works his way up to the expressionistic final third: when the horrors of the whole world comes crashing through Mother’s front door it is no longer possible to ignore the ways in which everything has all gone a bit Old Testament.
What follows is about as brutal and disturbing as anything that’s ever been yelled by one of those bulge-eyed Americans on the Bible Network. What keeps things interesting however, are the myriad subtexts and potential interpretations that arise, maybe not always deliberately, when the excesses of the bible are literalised in modern dress. These include but are not limited to: the difficulties faced by an artist to maintain inspiration in the face of adulation; the tendency of fanatics to destroy the things they love; the perils of isolationism; the destructive impact of war on humanity; the destructive impact of humanity on the environment; misogyny; patriarchy; plumbing… the final thirty minutes of Mother! are going to keep Film Studies departments in Masters theses for decades to come.
And yet it remains a faintly enervating experience. As the imagery becomes more extreme, as Mother! builds horror upon horror, the film stops being shocking and instead becomes clever. Aronofsky lifts shamelessly from antagonistic classics like Salò, Antichrist and Funny Games, but he does so with the flippancy of a precocious kid showing off his mastery of the auteur’s tool box. There is no denying the virtuosity of his film-making technique, but technique alone can’t justify such wanton grotesquerie.
Or probably it could, if it had been confined to the arthouses, where the sophisticates could admire his daring. But Aranofsky was given the keys to the multiplexes, and despite the talk of Rorsarch Tests and multitude of interpretations, all he’s really done is drawn a cock on the walls. Exhilarating as this may be, word has spread: box office takings are disappointing. The worry is that this was a wasted opportunity for mainstream cinema. The doors will close again, and yet the next provocateur to come along might actually have had something to say.