Dir. Darren Aronofsky; Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris
[3 out of 4 stars]
Never have I wanted to talk with a director about his work as much as I did after watching Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017). The film has generated discourse since its release, and rightly so. Although billed as a horror movie, it does not fully fit into the horror genre. mother! focuses on Jennifer Lawrence, called only Mother, and her husband, known as Him (Javier Bardem). They live in a dilapidated yet beautiful Victorian house that appears to be miles away from civilization. He is a poet struggling with writer’s block, and she spends her days painting, cleaning, and transforming their home into what she calls “a paradise”. One night, a character identified as Man (Ed Harris) arrives on their doorstep, claiming that he had been told their home was a bed and breakfast. While his presence makes Mother nervous, her husband is gracious and welcoming, even when the man’s wife (known as Woman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer) mysteriously appears the next day. From here, the film becomes intensely strange, deepening into a mélange of religious and political metaphors that culminate in an astonishing conclusion.
Sound is perhaps the most crucial element of the film, penetrating every scene. While Johann Johannsson, composer of Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016), is credited as the film’s music and sound consultant, there isn’t really a score. This is a rare choice for a director to make, yet it works remarkably well. Aronofsky favors a soundscape created by human noises- Mother’s sharp breaths and raw screams, footsteps thudding on the wooden floor. The house seems to be a living character; even its creaks and groans are her voice digitally manipulated. What begins as somewhat benign noises – the shifting of the old house, the clink of Mother stacking plates- escalate as the film does, to the crash of glass shattering, horrified screams. Often the noises are much louder than they would be in real life or travel throughout the enormous house in ways that are unnatural, catching the viewer off-guard. They sometimes cannot easily be traced to a specific source; for instance, Johannsson occasionally uses a pane of glass to create warped, unnatural noises of a questionable origin. The surreal soundscape heightens the tension as the film progresses and increases the sensation that the house itself is a living, breathing being. So prevalent is the influence of sound design that viewers could almost close their eyes and experience the film aurally.
Doing so, however, would mean missing out on the stunning cinematography of Matthew Libatique. His camera hardly stops moving and creates a handheld, shaky sensation as we follow Mother throughout the house. Aronofsky’s shots cut quickly, never lingering for too long on one subject. Even scenes that may seem to suggest a long take (such as the moment when Woman walks in a slow circle around Mother) instead cut from Woman to Mother and back again. This editing style creates a sense of unease, as the camera’s cuts allow us to see multiple angles of a scene at once, which cannot be accomplished in real life. Yet these scenes always come back to Mother as their grounding point. Indeed, the majority of the film is focused on Lawrence; 66 minutes of its 120-minute rundown feature her in closeup shots. We are always right with her. Tracking shots move with her through the house, following her as she rounds corners or climbs stairs. Sometimes we see over her shoulder and walk with her up to another character; at other times, we see as if through her eyes, as when the camera swings from the downstairs landing upwards to see Him standing at the top of the stairs. Being this close to a single character for so long allows us to build a closeness with Mother, but also becomes uncomfortable, which is, of course, what Aronofsky intends. She is the heart and soul of the film, the very essence of the story. The closeups feed us her emotions closely and vividly, and our confusion, distress, and fear mirror hers.
Such a cinematographic style places an enormous burden on Lawrence, and, despite divisive critiques of her performance, I found her successful. The role is markedly darker than even Katniss Everdeen, and she spends much of the film terrified, alarmed, or distraught. This is a performance solidified in microexpressions- the twitch of her eyes, the sound of her breath, the slow break in her smile. Yet I did not find her chemistry with Bardem convincing. Perhaps it is the age difference, which is mentioned in the film, but somehow their pairing was not believable. For his part, Bardem did not inspire the same terror that he did in No Country for Old Men (2007) and Skyfall (2012), but this more subtle role allowed him to build a more complex character. While it is not quite the role that I have come to expect from Bardem, he is a master of quietly creating unease in his viewers, a skill that comes in handy as Mother slowly becomes more and more alienated from the world around her.
Despite the controversy it has caused, mother! is definitely worth watching. Aronofsky has created a film that mixes horror with psychological thriller and a bold dash of Lynchian inexplicability. The result is an unrestrained, terrifying experience that will undoubtedly scare and confuse viewers. However, arguably the most frightening aspect of the movie comes in a form one might not expect and harkens back to the title of the film. As Woman explains, this fear is something that mothers are all too familiar with: people who have taken all that you have to give and still ask for more.