Ok, so here’s a thing. Darren Aranofsky has made another movie, and it’s one that’ll divide people, that’s for sure. I mean, let’s be honest, this should come as no surprise to us. For anyone that’s seen his past work, he hardly pulls punches when it comes to provocative imagery, challenging subject matter and intensely troubled characters. Requiem for a Dream anyone? Black Swan? Noah? The utter mind-bender that was The Fountain? Hell, even The Wrestler wasn’t a walk in the park (although it’s his most accessible work to date.)
And with mother! it’s fair to say he’s upped his game – or at least let off the shackles. I mean, I can only imagine the discussion with the studio… ‘You want to do what Darren? Er, ok. Wait, hold on. And now you want to do that? And that?! C’mon! You DO realise that Jennifer Lawrence is one of the biggest stars in the world and you want to put her through the absolute wringer?’
Because he really does. And some people, understandably, just can’t handle it. Plus critics are split, with many having reacted strongly (both good and bad); which is probably to be expected with an auteur’s work, but you still want people to see your movie and mother!, at the moment, is just about breaking even.
We also have to remember that word of mouth is a powerful thing – and critics are probably putting some people off, which is a shame. One even said that this is the most ambitious film to come out of a major Hollywood studio since Kubrick died. Which may well be true, but it’s fuel to the fire really, as a lot of people would take that comment as bad rather than good. Moreover, this is a film that’s also now part of a very small list, having achieved Cinemascore’s famous F grade, which only gets given to a piece of work that ‘goes out of its way to artfully alienate or confuse audiences.’
And this all has me wondering… do we as moviegoers just want films that are too safe these days? With superhero fodder galore and juggernaut franchises like Fast and Furious and Transformers going from strength to strength, and mind-numbing comedies being churned out all too often, I half suspect we’ve all become excessively comfortable, safe in our cotton wool bubble of mediocre expectancy. Which means that filmmakers like Aranofsky are vital to cinema, as bubbles must be burst as often as possible. Break the wheel and be anarchic with your stories Hollywood. Confuse us and make us nervous. We need it now more than ever.
And with mother! half the reaction it’s gotten might be because of the themes Aranofsky explores: nature and the environment, religion, humanity, celebrity and so on – and the incendiary way in which he does it. I mean, his approach does err on the side of mad visionary. For example, it’s been said he wrote the screenplay in five days in a kind of fever dream, and that Lawrence threw it across the room in disgust after reading it. But then, after reflecting, called the director the next day to tell him he was a genius.
And this kind of makes sense, misunderstood in his time and all that. A type of story-teller people aren’t going to get first time, nor should they. Also, people are people. When we don’t understand something we invariably default to anger and confusion. Plus, anything to do with religion (in this case Christianity) is often a powder-keg for a lot of audiences.
So as you might expect, story wise, this kind of film is best experienced cold and with little background, so I won’t say much. Other than the basic set-up is mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live alone in a house, which she’s busy decorating. He’s a writer, but with writer’s block. Then a man unexpectedly visits (Ed Harris), and he’s quickly followed by a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer); both of whom quickly become progressively more unwelcome house guests as the story unfolds. To the point where the final third of the film descends into utter insanity.
As for our way in, we follow events from mother’s point of view – and the camera sticks with Lawrence for most of the movie. Twisting and turning through the house, akin to the cinematography in Birdman. Often with the camera up as close as you can get, right in her face, picking up every little reaction and reminding the audience that not only is she beautiful, but also a pure soul, yet in pain and increasingly confused and angry with these house guests, frustrated at Him for not acknowledging her needs.
Bardem plays his part well too, allowing a lot of his natural charm to inhabit the character. But, lest we forget, he can do menace with the best of them, and this raises its head from time to time, leaving mother more confused than ever. She just wants his love and it never seems enough. And the interplay between the two of them in these type of moments is heartbreaking. Indeed, this could be the best performance of Lawrence’s career – more raw than Silver Linings Playbook (for which she won an Oscar) and more intense than Winter’s Bone (for which she was nominated).
She’s since said that this role took a lot out of her, and she doesn’t expect she’d take a similar part for a long time. Which is more than understandable. Ultimately, this is an Aranofsky film, so if you’ve seen any of his past work you’ll have an idea of what to expect. If you haven’t, go in with an open mind and interpret from the story what you will. Just know it won’t be an easy watch.