'mother!' is not what the trailers sell

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Hollywood has rarely, if ever, seen as bold a wide release as Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a surreal tone-piece that provides two hours of unsettling allegory with just enough narrative and scares to fill a trailer that looks like a mainstream horror film.

Paramount, the studio behind the billion-dollar Transformers franchise, has given the experimental filmmaker $30 million and an all-star cast of Hollywood actors. In return, Aronofsky gave them a completely bonkers film, undeniably flawed and admirably bizarre.

The film sets the tone early, presenting the viewer with beautiful footage of a burning woman and a burning house that rebuilds itself, breathtaking images that make no narrative sense when provided without context as they are.

The story properly begins as Jennifer Lawrence, the third highest-paid actress in the world, wakes up in this newly rebuilt house. She plays the highly optimistic wife of a writer, played to mysterious brilliance by Javier Bardem — none of the characters are named because this is that kind of movie. Bardem, plagued by writer’s block, is aloof and distant from Lawrence and spends a great amount of time wandering around their property.

Although their home is secluded from public life, a traveler, played by Ed Harris, stumbles into their house and kicks off a recurring theme of the film — unwanted, unexpected guests making their way into the home. A slew of colorful characters played by a cast of wonderful actors follow Harris into the film, creating a chaotic scene that escalates, almost humorously, until Lawrence reaches a
breaking point.

Things begin to go right for the lead couple, as Bardem returns to writing and they finally achieve a goal they’ve shared since before the film’s beginning — parenthood. But Lawrence’s character’s pregnancy does more than just fulfill the promise of the film’s title, as it gives her character a sense of urgency and a person to protect and fight for.

These first two acts of “mother!” are odd, with flashes of surreality but never truly bizarre. They are largely uneventful, sometimes-boring segments, periodically interrupted by moments of suspense, mystery and even comedy. Alone, this hour and a half of filmmaking is decent but would still easily be Aronofsky’s worst film. Then the whole thing goes to hell, and Aronofsky goes all in.

To describe the last 40 minutes of “mother!” would do a disservice to both the film and any potential viewer, but this last act is a brilliant, edge-of-your seat nightmare with absolutely no logical sense. The camera follows Lawrence, alternating between close-ups of her and shaky-cam views of the world around her — freakish, grotesque looks at a world falling to pieces.

Writers will break down the Rorschach test of a film that is “mother!” for decades to come. Its imagery can often be on the nose, but Aronofsky’s overall subtext is murky. On one level, it is a meditation on toxic relationships, and on others, an allegory for life as a creative and potentially even a theological treatise on the idea of God. It is thematically weighty, often heavy-handed but commendable in its ambition, as this is new territory for such a widely marketed film.

Against all reason, Paramount is pushing the offbeat movie to mass audiences, giving it a wide release and pushing marketing that promotes an entirely different film. With such a perfect storm brewing against it, Aronofsky’s oddity is certain to leave a bad taste in audience’s mouths. But, taken on its own merits, it is a wonderfully insane venture into big-budget surrealist horror.

“mother!”

Rating: R

Runtime: 121 minutes

Score: 4/5 stars