Thursday, September 21, 2017

aronofsky's unrelenting provocation

"Darren Aronofsky’s 'mother!' Will Likely Be 2017’s Most Hated Movie!"

So blared the headline for a movie review on The Verge site when Aronofsky's work - a true cinematic affront - played The Toronto International Film Festival a few days prior to its national release.

"The most hated"? Perhaps. But, frankly, who cares? It's an opinion, that's all. "The best..." The worst..." "The most..." When it comes to movies, why do opinions lean towards overstatement and exaggeration? Sorry, but in this case, a more interesting consideration is why "mother!" might be hated, particularly when one considers the execrable junk that moviegoers sit through week after week and that weak-willed critics leniently endorse.

"The most hated?" No, but it is certainly "the most talked-about and debated." That's something that one could hardly say about anything recently critically-acclaimed or about any of the recent Oscar winners. Quick! I challenge you to name the last three Best Picture winners. You probably can't because most Oscar winners, risk-free and politically correct, prove to be unmemorable. "mother!" is hardly unmemorable.

From where I sit, Aronofky's film in currently on the same fascinating journey previously taken by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love," Elaine May's "Ishtar," John Boorman's "Exorcist II: The Heretic," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart," Steven Spielberg's "1941" and, most notably, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" - all "hated" films.

Each and every one of them angered critics and the public alike - each was called "the worst" - and the disapproval lingered and burned for years. What sets "mother!" apart from all of them is that it is willfully troublesome, with hellish imagery and sounds that grow more repellent, pronounced and overwhelming until it, well, simply expires. The end.

Given that this site is devoted largely to movies that have been unpopular and mostly misunderstood, "mother!" fits right in - and one of the qualities that I like and admire about the film is just how inscrutable it is and how it is not audience-friendly at all. It's also elusive. "mother!" has had critics flailing about as they've attempted to define, describe or pigeon-hole it.

Exactly what is it? A psychological thriller? A religious horror film? A movie about the most traumatic home invasion imaginable? Or is it the dark, dark comedy as A.O. Scott bravely called it in The New York Times?

Superficially, it's your basic woman-in-distress movie - a variation on Roman Polanski's 'Rosemary's Baby" about an entrapped woman married to man whose ways are suspect to say the least. It can also be taken as a filmic nightmare, plain and simple - a movie that catches us while we're still awake and then lulls us into a dream that, almost insidiously, turns bad, holding the heroine (and us) captive in a place that's clearly hell.

The latter point has prompted critics to label it a religious allegory and I have to admit that I am disappointed that Aronofsky and his stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, supported that analysis when they were interviewed by Melena Ryzik for The New York Times. (Bardem feels that the film is about "the birth of a religion as a cult.") I was hoping Aronofsky would remain quiet and simply leave his film open to free interpretation.

Here's my take, an analysis as fractured as the movie itself... We are introduced to a nameless husband and wife - played by Lawrence and Bardem - although the end credits list them as "mother" and "Him" (capitalized as one does when referring to God or Jesus - hence the religious slant). He's a poet struggling with writer's block.  His only feedback comes from her. She tends to restoring his childhood home that was destroyed by fire. She is devoted to Him and to home.

They live a solitary life that should be blissful, but Aronofsy creates immediate tension and anxiety by having his camera trail (stalk, actually) Lawrence whenever she is on screen. It is seemingly attached to her at the hip as she walks from room to room and turns and goes up a staircase. She is never alone even when, ostensibly, she is alone.

It's a nerve-wracking conceit that never lets up and that becomes more suffocating as the film progresses - or should I say as it regresses?

The solitude ends when an elderly stranger shows up at their door and is invited to stay the night by Bardem, much to Lawrence's distress. The man's wife, a truly unsettling woman, shows up the next day and the two are invited - again by Bardem - to stay as long as they want. It turns out that the stranger is dying. He's also a fan and wanted to meet Him before passing. Tellingly, this attention is catnip to Him. He can't resist it. He can't say no to this creepy couple - or their two grown sons, who also show up.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer (excellent!) play the older couple (also nameless), and while Scott likened them to George and Martha in Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," they are closer to Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) from "Rosemary's Baby."

Our initial feeling of dread, it turns out, is well-founded. Awful things happen, mostly to the Lawrence character who just wants to make her husband happy, but as more and more people invade their home, taking over and destroying the hard, meticulous work she put into it, the more Him becomes oblivious, self-centered and narcissistic - and the more she becomes invisible. Not just to Him but to the hordes of hangers-on now populating their home. Her pleas to Him to stop this madness go unacknowledged because - and this is important - he listens to no one.

He can't get enough attention. There are never too many people - his "core" support - in their home. He enjoys the jarring chaos that comes with all the fawning - and he is complicit in the destruction that follows.

Maybe this is a stretch but, for me, the crazed, surreal narrative of "mother!" matches the current political climate. Him is reminiscent of someone currently in the public eye who creates chaos (and possible destruction) with his insatiable need for attention and adulation. Sitting through this movie, cringing and witnessing something all too recognizable, I saw it not as something religious but as a nasty political allegory.

"mother!" may be the first Trump-era horror movie.

That said, Aronofsky's direction is impeccable and completely, relentlessly focused. His choreography of the crowds and the crowded excess that ravenously overtake Lawrence's world, abetted by Matthew Libatique's invaluable cinematography, make for major, awesome filmmaking.

The director creates a hysteria that's absolutely brilliant but beyond the appreciation of the average moviegoer. A seriously misunderstood movie.

Notes in Passing: Since writing this and sharing my political allegory theory, reader "v.h." posted a a compelling response in the comment section, extending this observation - "I saw Jennifer Lawrence as Hillary Clinton during the primary and after the election as everything seemed to gang up on her and everything fell apart." Great catch.

BTW, "mother!" received a rare F rating (no surprise here) from CinemaScore, one of only 19 movies to be so graded. (Such sites have become the bane of the movie industry.) Meanwhile, the readers of The New York Times responded to the Times' review and Ryzik's interview with their own opinions. The movie is divisive and polarizing. Is that so wrong?

Any film that truly impassions people is a positive, all too rare these days. 
* * * * *
~Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from "mother!"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 2017©


Reena said...

well said. Basically a horror film with a pedigree. The only thing that angered me was the money I spent on the ticket and time that could have been put to better use. Crap.

Brian Lucas said...

I planned to see this film, despite the lynch-mob mentality of the initial reaction to is. It sounds like the kind of tough, challenging movie that most people find easier to revile than try to understand. I can't wait!

Tracy said...

I saw this movie and thought it was an imposing achievement. I had no idea what I was really watching but it had me mesmerized the entire time. I agree with one of your assessments - that it's simply about a dream gone wrong that turns into an awful, awful nightmare. I'll be seeing it again but not too soon! I'm exhausted.

Charlotte said...

So glad that you mentioned the tendency of moviegoers to call something "the worst" without fully digesting the movie. "Vertigo" is a prime example of a film that was trashed when it opened and is now considered a masterpiece. And the other movies that you list seem to have been adjusted upward after being re-evaluated. I haven't seen "Mother!" and, from what I read, it's off-putting but that doesn't make it awful or "the worst." It will be interesting to see where it goes in film history.

Bill from Philly said...

One reviewer gave another description of the movie. He called it Aronofsky's apology to his ex-wife! I assume the ex-wife is Rachel Weisz and that he's apologizing for putting her through "The Fountain"!

Peter Warner said...

Trump also came into my mind while watching "Mother!" As you say, Javier Bardem plays a needy character who can't get enough applause. Yes, but he's also an impossible megalomaniac who ignores everything that Jennifer Lawrence asks of him because he can't let down his fans. Very politically savvy.

Sharon said...

I can't wait to see "Mother!" The so-called "controversy" of it being "the worst" and "the most hated" has only whetted my appetite. I'm sure that's true of others who may have had no interest in seeing it. It has "cult movie" written all over it.

v.h. said...

I also thought of Trump during the movie, but my imagination took me a step further. I saw Jennifer Lawrence as Hillary Clinton during the primary and after the election as everything seemed to gang up on her and everything fell apart. I agree, this movie plays like a political allegory.

joe baltake said...

Great observation, v.h. It underlines my theory that this is a political allegory. I’ve no idea when Aronofsky filmed “mother!” (was it before, during or after the election? But it certainly seems like a vivid commentary on what happened and is still happening. Thanks for sharing! -J

J. Dickman said...

Good grief. I think you're reading way too much into this movie. I agree with Reena. It's just the usual horror junk with a new paint job.

Marvin said...

A great "review" of "mother!". You covered the film incredibly well, except for one minor omission. Why is "mother!" not capitalized in the title? Any thoughts?

joe baltake said...

Marvin- I've no idea. You'll have to ask Aronofsky. -J