Schlockmania was inevitably going to have to check out any film that is infuriating the multiplex set the way Mother is. It rated an impressive “F” grade from the blockheads who make up the voting base of Cinemascore and has proved divisive with the critical set, many of whom always have their knives sharpened for anything that’s too ambitious or daring. Mother lives up the hype created by such a response and is easily the most uncommercial film to emerge from a major studio this year.
Mother is less of a plot-driven enterprise and more an artsy, unnerving experience shot through with plentiful symbolism and metaphors. The titular character (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young homemaker who lives to maintain a lovely house that she rebuilt herself after a fire and take care of Him (Javier Bardem), a brooding poet trying to regain the will to write.
Sadly, her devotion doesn’t inspire Him as much as the arrival of an unexpected guest (Ed Harris), who pretends to be searching for a rooming house but is actually a big fan of the poet. The poet is shockingly willing to embrace the guest and this leads to more arrivals, starting with the man’s casually vicious wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and metastasizing into an array of unwanted, ever more intrusive and volatile visitors as the film drifts into more surreal and disturbing territory.
Mother is kind of like a two-hour panic attack captured on celluloid. Writer/director Darren Aronofsky is familiar with using the language of cinema to assault an audience (examples: Black Swan and Requiem For A Dream) but he shows a new level of mastery in that dark art here.
He crafts a series of situations that play on a primal fear of having one’s home invaded, carefully manipulating the peaks and valleys of these situations to keep the viewer leaning forward. As the story unfurls, it reveals an array of symbols and allegorical moments that allow for religious, ecological and “artistic creation” metaphor interpretations of what is happening. The director’s technical game is similarly strong: it’s worth noting he makes uncommonly effective and subtle use of handheld camerawork to force the viewer into lockstep with Lawrence as she endures each assault on her nerves.
Aronofsky also gets strong performances from his cast, having them tap into visceral, recognizable emotions that anchor the film’s flights of dark fancy. Lawrence proves her mettle in the lead role, using her face, body and voice to create and sustain depictions of fear and discomfort that will leave you feeling wrung out. Bardem provides an interesting flipside as someone whose calm, welcoming exterior conceals depths of selfishness and callousness. Harris and Pfeiffer lend a human face to the film’s symbolic disruptions of home and there are brief but impressive turns by an array of guests that include Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig and Stephen McHattie.
Though it is not a horror film in the strict genre sense, horror fans who appreciate the genre’s artsy/dark side are likely to appreciate how Aronofsky uses the language of horror to achieve his artistic ends in Mother. For example, Lawrence has an almost physical relationship with the house that allows it to mirror her levels of discomfort in a way reminiscent of Cronenberg (this film does for architecture what Videodrome did for home video equipment). The final half hour embraces a kind of shock-and-awe surrealism that evokes the weirdness of Ken Russell and the scarier moments of Pink Floyd: The Wall, plus there’s a genuinely transgressive shock in the final reel that would make Lucio Fulci smile.
In short, it is rare that cult film fans get a chance to see something so wild, willfully weird and confrontational in a traditional multiplex setting. If you value that sort of culture-jamming, Mother offers a bracing respite from the usual event movie numbness. You may love it or hate it… but you’ll definitely feel it afterwards.