<<<I took care not to reveal any specific spoilers, but some discretion when reading is still advised>>>
Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!”….I am happy to report that there is no need for some mass panic. “Mother!” may start slow, but it proves to be a very enjoyable “descent” into sheer madness overall. The initial story here is Him (Javier Bardem) and Her (Jennifer Lawrence) settling into a married life in a country mansion, until one couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) become their pestering lodgers against the wishes of Her. Ironically, the main flaw of Aronofsky’s psychological horror film “Mother!” is that it is not his first film. If it were, it would have been a masterpiece of achievement. Instead, “Mother!” is just the “recycling” of the elements/tricks present in Aronofsky’s previous films. How does this affect this film, one may ask? Well, Aronofsky’s “recycling” of his ideas reduces the overall effect, impact and unpredictability of “Mother!” by as much as 80%. “Mother!” formula is quite simple to understand. The film is structurally and archetypically “Black Swan” (2010) + touches of some “over-the-top” home invasion and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). This is all to it. And, where it is not all, it also incorporates, quite evidently, Aronofsky’s artful orange-colour bursting creativity and philosophy we have all previously seen in “The Fountain” (2006) and biblical/allegorical references. The saddest thing here is that the film is quite entertaining and even brilliant in parts, and the premise would have been completely unforgettable had Aronofsky been more original in his work.
The film begins by showing Her (the titles call her Mother, but I will refer to her as She) (Jennifer Lawrence) and her husband (Javier Bardem (“Skyfall” (2012)), and their day-to-day life in their country mansion. While the husband struggles to write his novel, She is concerned with decorating their house. Of course, it is fairer to say that “Mother!” really begins by showing the end, but it will probably be saying too much at this point. Bardem character’s most precious possession is a mysterious stone-like object which he keeps in his private room. Things start to really get out of control, when a visitor, a doctor (Ed Harris (“A History of Violence” (2005)), arrives at their doorstep. Soon, the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer (“The Age of Innocence” (1993)) follows him to our main couple’s home, and things really start to get uncomfortable and spooky at their house. Now, there are a number of elements at play here: the “external” threat/danger, the “internal” threat and the focus on the relationship between the main characters. The “external” threat is the visitors which arrive to stay at the writer’s home. They start to probe the family’s affairs, and unsettle Her in particular. The “internal” threat is the fantasy element deriving from the house itself. Putting aside any biblical and symbolic meanings, this first half of the film is relatively weak and ineffective. It may have been shot by a film student, modestly experimenting with the psychological horror genre. The camera is often positioned at, and looks from Lawrence character’s shoulder, demonstrating the impact of the home invasion as experienced by Her. There are mysterious noises, strange, hallucinatory experiences, blood appearing out of nowhere, and spooky apparitions. However, the main problem here, which Aronofsky failed to consider, is that we, the viewers, after being introduced to “spooky”/unsettling happenings every thirty seconds or so, soon become “immune” to them. By the film’s fifteenth attempt at inducing an internal “omg” cry from the audience, the viewers become desensitised to all the horror, and the film’s attempts here to draw the audience into the film are not really that successful. Most of the tricks employed are predictable and unimaginative, with Mother becoming “too much of a victim” for any real sympathies.
The second part of “Mother!” has some of the most controversial and talked-about sequences. Here, Aronofsky lets his imagination run wild. The sequences are horrific, claustrophobic, very memorable. If there was any audience Aronofsky wanted to target, I was part of it. I previously enjoyed both: Lars von Trier’s artful and horrifying “Antichrist” (2009) and Martin Koolhoven’s heart-and-gut wrenching “Brimstone” (2017). I also loved Aronofsky’s depressing “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), and just could not get enough of his creative force in “The Fountain” (2006). However, with “Mother!”, all is not that simple. Firstly, “Mother!” has such unbelievable sequences, they are downright funny – laugh-out-loud funny, despite all the horror. A satire, an allegory, symbolism…well, perhaps, and, perhaps, Banksy was also an influence. After all, with “Mother!” all is possible. The second problem is that if one has seen Aronofsky’s previous films, there is almost nothing new here to see. In “Mother!”, the philosophical/puzzling elements seem to be taken straight out of Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”; and “Mother!”’s “home invasion” theme is just the replaying (although now on a grand-scale) of one of the final key scenes of Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”. The similarities between these two films and “Mother!” are overwhelming, from drugs references and a merciless descent into sheer despair/madness present in both “Mother!” and “Requiem for a Dream”, to the focus on the colour orange present in both “The Fountain” and in “Mother!”.
Regarding the similarities between Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” and “Mother!”, it is safe to say that I can probably write a thick book on it. Aronofsky said that he wrote his draft script to “Mother!” in only five days, and I am surprised how he did not write his screenplay in only thirty minutes. Structurally and archetypically, “Mother!” is “Black Swan”, and, of course, “Black Swan”, in turn, “drew inspiration” from “Repulsion” (1965) and “Perfect Blue” (1997). In “Mother!”, the character of Lawrence is Nina Sayers from “Black Swan”. Both characters are true innocent victims, with the cameras in both films often closing up on their faces to show the horrors they are living through. Jennifer Lawrence even has the same mannerism and demeanour as Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”. If Nina in “Black Swan” undergoes transformation herself, in “Mother!”, it is the house which undergoes the transformation. Moreover, Javier Bardem in “Mother!” seems to play the role of Thomas Leroy from “Black Swan”. In both films, Bardem and Cassel play characters that are much older than the main innocent heroines, and both of them try to protect the younger heroines who are battling internal and external dangers. Such similarities seem endless and overwhelming, and they also include some particular scenes (for example, the scenes involving blood/wounds/toilets). Other clear “inspirations” of “Mother!” include “Rosemary’s Baby” and surreal “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). Why these similarities matter? Well, because they are one too many, and it becomes quite impossible to watch and enjoy “Mother!” without constantly having in mind the scenes and elements of other movies. I know of no other director who would employ his other films or other people’s cinematic work to such a great extent in his work, and then call it creative, original work. In fact, to some extent, Aronofsky’s (over)-use of the previous cinematic material is even more shocking and puzzling that “Mother!”s premise itself.
The cast and acting in “Mother!” are good, even though Bardem and Lawrence make an unlikely pairing. Javier Bardem is a pleasure to watch, because his character remains enigmatic throughout, and Ed Harris is always good playing a guy who is just too secretly eager to crash a family’s peaceful existence, recalling his role in “A History of Violence”.
It is a pity that Aronofsky blatantly and all too obviously borrows his previous material to make this film, with him taking the essential “body parts” of his (and others) films, cementing them together, and producing this latest “scarecrow”. Thus, sadly, “Mother!” is not as effective as it would have been otherwise. Especially in the film’s first half, it feels like a novice film student suddenly decided to write and shoot a parody on Aronofsky’s cinematography/films. The amazing fact here is that this student/person is Aronofsky himself. Though the film’s first part suffers from very predictable moments, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the role of the innocent, victimised Nina of “Black Swan”, the second part of the film proves that “Mother!” is an enjoyable and terrifyingly memorable experience overall. The real pleasure here is to be found in the film’s “over-the-top” sequences. The film is intense and hugely uncomfortable, but it does transpire into a “must-watch” film for any psychological horror fan. 7/10
While considering both Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” and “Mother!“, I could not help but notice another artistic “influence” here: Stephen King’s novel “Carrie“. “Influence” is too soft a word for the parallel which is to be drawn here. While the relationship between Nina and her mother in “Black Swan” mirrors the relationship of Carrie and her mother in “Carrie“, with both mothers being single, domineering and controlling, the endings of “Mother!” and “Carrie” are also similar in that both finales end in an explosive fire – caused by the main heroine who tried to avenge the wrongs done too her. An inspiration? Well, with a pile of his films on one side of his desk and with a pair of other films on the other, and with Stephen King’s book to finish the script off, I am now surprised how Aronofsky did not write his script in only fifteen minutes.