I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I cannot recall the last time a film made me as angry as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! has. Maybe never. (Yes, the title is most emphatically with a lowercase “m” and an exclamation point. And yes, that’s emblematic of what’s making me so angry.) As mother! — *grrr* — unfurled over its two-hour runtime, I found myself actually clenching my jaw with ever-increasing fury as Aronofsky’s head wended its way further and further up his own cinematic ass only to declare just how delicious his farts smell. This is a filmmaker for whom mysticism and trippiness have been essential components of his work since the beginning, since his feature debut with 1998’s Pi… and I’ve often been a big fan of that. (I loved his last film, 2014’s bonkers Biblical fantasy Noah.) But never before like this. Never before has an uncomfortable ugliness he was exploring landed with such repulsive pointlessness, such transparent predictability. Aronofsky is intent on presenting to us in faux metaphysical trappings a “truth” he seems to believe is secret and cryptic yet that is, in fact, utterly banal and inarguable. He has given us a grotesquely wrapped gift box that contains nothing but shredded newsprint sprinkled with a bit of horseshit.
mother! is not an allegory, and it is not metaphorical, though I’m sure Aronofsky — who wrote the script as well as directed — would say it is. Allegory and metaphor are what you find hidden underneath a top layer of story that stands on its own. Nothing here makes a damn lick of sense — not even in a nightmarish, fever-dream sort of way — except as the literal sequence of events that plods across the screen, and the “characters” are nothing more than cardboard stand-ups representing themselves. No one has a name here, but the press notes and the credits refer to Jennifer Lawrence’s (Passengers, X-Men: Apocalypse) character as “Mother,” even though she does not become a mother until halfway through the film, and even though it actually does not seem likely during that first half that she will ever become a mother. Motherhood is simply her inevitable fate, I guess. Mother has no existence outside the huge, rambling mansion in the middle of nowhere where she lives with her husband (Javier Bardem: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, The Gunman). He does have an external existence: he is not “Father” but “Him.” He is able to leave the house and venture far beyond their middle-of-nowhere — she never does — and he is a writer, a poet, someone with adoring fans eagerly awaiting his next book, someone with work that bears no connection to her, beyond how, of course, she serves as his muse, his “inspiration.” She literally does nothing but serve him: she is renovating the house, which burned down before they met. She wants to “make a paradise” for him. She has no other desire. She has no personality or purpose beyond that. We cannot even call her self-abnegating: she doesn’t appear to have had any self to begin with. She might actually be a manifestation of the house, which has a bloody heart and a bleeding vulva — yes, the house has these things. The house is as alive as she is. Or she is as dead as a house.
Anyway, paradise is invaded: one of Him’s stalkerish fans, Man (Ed Harris: Run All Night, Gravity), stops by for a visit, and won’t leave. Later, Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer: Dark Shadows, New Year’s Eve), arrives and makes herself obnoxiously at home. Woman is also pretty much defined solely as a mother, to adult sons Oldest Son and Younger Brother (played by real-life brothers Domhnall [The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens] and Brian Gleeson [Logan Lucky, Snow White and the Huntsman]). If Mother’s “paradise” comment was a tip-off, the Cain-and-Abel dynamic between the adult sons cements it: Aronofsky is going to wallow in a tortured literalism not only about literary creation but capital-C Creation, but only from a narrow and abhorrently misogynistic perspective: men create, and Create, and women suffer for men’s art, and for men’s religion, and that’s just the way it is, now and forever. (Dude, we know. This is not something you discovered. Or did you honestly only just learn this?) In Aronofsky’s eye here, women do not create — beyond giving birth to sons for their fathers to do with as they please — and there is no vision or imagination that comes from the mind of a woman: Mother dresses in drab neutrals, and she’s painting Him’s house in the same noncolors. The creativity of men, however: Wow! It is chaotic and violent, apocalyptic, even. It thrives on chaos and violence. Him craves that excitement, and encourages it, and too bad if Mother will become a victim of it.
Mother exists for no purpose in this tale except so that abuse may be heaped upon her in the service of Him, and so that she may be venerated by Him for it. But that is also the purpose of Mother to mother! The most generous interpretation of Aronofsky’s intent here is that he is somehow condemning the reduction of women to dehumanized objects and brutalized symbols in both the overarching mythology of our culture and in the prosaic daily operations of Big Entertainment, such as — ahem — the making of movies and the resulting stories that end up on the screen. Aronofsky may even think he is sympathetic to Mother: the entire film is seen through her eyes, and intimate handheld cameras give us her dizzied, sickened perspective on events that are horrifying and menacing her. But it’s the same hatred for women masquerading as feminism that a slasher flick engages in when it sexualizes a final girl’s terror for the titillation of the audience. You don’t counter the awful crap that gets piled on women by our culture, High or Low, by piling on more of the same awful crap. (See also: Ex Machina and Under the Skin for two other recent contemptible attempts by male filmmakers to have their feminist cake and their misogyny too.) If mother! really wanted to decry the way women are abused and men are deified, it wouldn’t merely slather an arty veneer on more of the same-old same-old.
But the worst, the absolutely most infuriating thing about mother! is, on top of all of this, the self-pitying. Woe is the male-creator-god, so afflicted by his talent, so tormented by his doubt, so wracked by artist’s block! Look at the damage the love of his fans, and his love for his fans, causes! Look what his genius made him do to his inspiration, his muse! It hurts him more than it hurts her, don’cha know. (This is how abusers talk. Not that there is any awareness of this on the part of the film.) And any supposed feminist wokeness on Aronofsky’s part that might redeem this cinematic rending of garments, this creative self-flagellation, is instantly negated by screaming reality. The filmmaker might think he has scorned his poet-god’s need for validation and “inspiration” in a trite much-younger woman — there are 21 years between Bardem and Lawrence — when he has Man scoff, “I thought she was your daughter,” not wife. But this is true: Aronofsky, who is precisely the same age as Bardem, is now dating Lawrence. So is Bardem’s poet-god worthy of scoff and scorn, or worth emulating? What of Aronofsky?
Sometimes it’s easy and fine to separate the art from the artist, and sometimes he makes that laughably impossible.