** (out of 4)
If you were to plot every filmmaker’s career trajectory on a graph, Darren Aronofsky’s would be one of the many that’d peak early but considerably flatten out thereafter. Back in 2000, he struck gold with Requiem for a Dream, a depiction of the infernal realities of drug addiction that still resonates with an alarming poignancy. But in both The Wrestler and Black Swan, he followed his characters’ obsessions with such an obsessiveness of his own that he neglected to examine the societal and cultural mores that endorse such dangerous perfectionism. And we’d be better off not talking about The Fountain and Noah.
For the most part, mother!, Aronofsky’s newest movie, confirms the fact that he still hasn’t found a way out of the moviemaking wilderness. When we open, Jennifer Lawrence is “mother,” a loving, white-dress-touting housewife who lives in the countryside with a brooding poet husband (Javier Bardem) named “Him.” All seems peaceful: the sky is blue, urban civilization is nowhere to be seen, and mother is making excellent progress on her interior renovations. Yet thanks to its sinister music, obstinately shaky camerawork, and grainy texture, the film quickly beats you into the realization that – gasp! – something terrible is about to happen. (Never mind that you really don’t know what – or, for that matter, why you should care if it does.)
If the above description of mother!’s first act sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is. “mother” is only an extra-innocent version of Black Swan’s Nina Sayers; when Michelle Pfeiffer pops in (as “woman”) and starts acting just like Black Swan’s Lily, this resemblance only grows sharper. Meanwhile, Act I’s plot largely centers on mother’s realization that Him is not the perfect husband she imagined; his manipulative attitude and her bewildered reactions to it are both eerily reminiscent of 1944’s Gaslight, a film in which Ingrid Bergman singlehandedly redefined the stereotype of the passive, dimwitted housewife. Tropes can certainly be used for good, especially if a filmmaker chooses to play with them (see anything by the Coen brothers or Todd Haynes for good examples). But Aronofsky’s clichés about passive, innocent women prove unyielding in their self-absorbed sincerity. On an intellectual level, they keep the film in a state of stagnation, all while the basic plotline continues to try to scare you with forcedly creepy music and pointless trips into dark basements.
The second part of mother! turns out to be nothing like the first: whether out of haste or an uncharacteristic self-awareness, Aronofsky abandons his lame attempts at horror and abruptly turns the film into an allegory on religion, art, and human relations. If you can overlook the incongruous changes in tone, style, and pacing – plus the general lack of subtlety – you’ll find that this part of the film does introduce some interesting ideas. For example, it turns out that Him, among other things, is a stand-in for a Christ-like figure. And while many movies about religion tend to portray religious figures as corrupt, hypocritical, or demagogic, Him is instead defined by his insatiable need for others’ adoration. Whether most of the religions we know were founded on such vanity, of course, is very much debatable. But Aronofsky deserves credit for making a somewhat disquieting analogy: what if Jesus, Abraham, Muhammad, and Buddha were simply insecure attention-seekers, just like the many modern-day celebrities who clog up the Web with their tweets?
Even with this potentially intriguing idea in his clutches, however, Aronofsky still can’t help but shoot himself in the foot. Him may be a quasi-religious figure, but Aronofsky also sees him as an artist – and in its characterization of art as a megalomaniacal quest for approval, the movie proves completely off the mark. To be sure, there’s a long-standing debate over whether artists work primarily for themselves or an audience, and it’d be wrong to suggest that real artists never crave acclamation. But Aronofsky’s depiction of an artist leaves absolutely no room for art’s self-purifying, self-actualizing qualities. Moreover, the approval that Him desires isn’t even the thoughtful appreciation that good artists would gladly accept: rather, it’s the superficial adulation of people who claim that a work is “beautiful” without understanding why. All the other characteristics of the film’s conception of the artist – notions of how artists attain transcendence only via the subjugation, humiliation, and destruction of others – only confirm the diminutive, simplistic cruelty of this worldview.
In the end, the film that mother! will probably most remind you of is 2014’s Whiplash. Damien Chazelle’s movie drew plenty of acclaim upon its release, and it still commands a strong following. But as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody pointed out, its view of the creative process was fairly simplistic:
“In ‘Whiplash,’ the young musicians don’t play much music. Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not…with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history…in short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition…and nothing else.”
In a way, you could say that Darren Aronofsky’s depiction of the writing process is similarly limited in its understanding of how authors work. Him doesn’t read books, revise drafts, converse with other writers, or even freewrite. Rather, he paces around in the vain hope that “inspiration” will eventually strike. Compare him to the writers profiled in the recent book The World Broke In Two – all of whom kept abreast of cultural developments and constantly strove to perfect their writing – and you quickly realize that Him is a ludicrous caricature, a stereotype to satisfy those who buy the bogus notion that genius arises from some sort of sudden, divine stimulation. The reality of the creative process is far more grueling, perhaps too much so to be easily captured on camera. But mother! proves completely uninterested in such nuances – and that’s ultimately why its own attempt at creating art fails so spectacularly.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Running Time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.”
Produced by: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel
Written and Directed by: Darren Aronofsky