When viewing mother!, the less you know the better, but be forewarned: Darren Aronofsky’s seventh feature film is divisive. It exchanges linearity for an absurdist – almost Beckettian – narrative entrenched in metaphor, allegory, and nightmarish imagery. It’s partly a visually stunning accomplishment, but it’s also heavy-handed and not nearly as emotionally stirring as it could have been.
Aronofsky purposely kept the plot under wraps because, in many ways, “the story” isn’t as important as the film’s messages. However, the plot can be synopsized as follows: A nameless woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is thrown into a tailspin when a series of uninvited houseguests compromise her already unstable marriage to an accomplished poet (Javier Bardem) suffering from writer’s block. Lawrence’s “character,” a doe-eyed Alice in Wonderland, constantly attempts to placate and regain the attention of her narcissistic husband, even as her world crumbles.
As guests (beginning with Ed Harris then Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, and finally a horde of zealots) invade her home, Lawrence remains frustratingly mum, possibly because she is trapped within her husband’s shadow or because Aronofsky insists on regressing Lawrence to a dated archetype. Known for portraying fiercely independent characters like Mystique and Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence plays against type. Her character is only slightly removed from the ‘50s housewife stereotype. She acquiesces to her husband’s demands and allows the home she rebuilt – the home she struggles to make her own – to be destroyed by the careless, cannibalistic home invaders.
Within the seemingly simple story, mother! critiques fame culture, the suffocating limitations of domesticity, the subjugation of womanhood, and the cyclicality of toxic masculinity. The film’s villain is clearly Bardem, not the houseguests, for he refuses to recognize his doting wife’s contributions to both his success and sanity. As the film progresses, Lawrence is ignored, gaslit, and eventually violently attacked, and that’s when Aronofsky’s heavy-handed imagery diminishes the film’s social critique.
Rather than allow Lawrence to portray a well-rounded and relatable character, she is reduced to a symbol. The viewer learns next to nothing about her past or her desires other than the fact that she longs to please her husband and finish remodeling their home. It’s obvious that Aronofksy purposefully wanted Lawrence’s character to be paper-thin to transform mother! into a social allegory, but by doing so, he undermines the film’s critique of oppressive gender roles. Ultimately, the incessant depiction of Lawrence as a woman who is browbeaten, abused, and unable to resist her oppressors frankly seems untimely. In the year of Wonder Woman and Get Out, which similarly utilizes horror tropes, mother! feels downright outdated.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Aronofsky attempts to position mother! alongside the films of other controversial auteurs like Gaspar Noé, David Lynch, and even Stanley Kubrick, but it falls short. The social message of mother! will sadly be shrouded by its shocking climatic sequence and a surprise cameo. Mother! shines brightest during the quiet moments, when Lawrence’s character grapples with her situation and contemplates her future, not during the frantic climax. Despite its shortcomings, mother! is undeniably memorable and thought-provoking, which was likely Aronofsky’s objective to begin with. In which case, mission accomplished.