Ars Gratia Artis: mother! and its abuse of depth

mother! uses a home makeover and marital strife to probe questions of humanity and nature

source: Kyler Russell

There’s trouble in paradise when a couple’s picturesque home becomes a haven for unwelcome guests. However, there is much beneath the surface of this ill-fated house party. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky delivers another tale of tragedy and loss, as mother! is as macabre as it is thoughtful.

mother!’s award-winning cast is spell-binding, carrying a story whose central theme of unrequited love would struggle to support itself on its own. Javier Bardem plays an ambivalent writer seeking inspiration in a forest retreat. Jennifer Lawrence plays his wife, who diligently restores their house, breathing life into it with every refurbished cabinet and wall color selection.

Bardem is a master of terror, particularly in Skyfall and No Country for Old Men, the latter for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His obsidian features and piercing gaze are chilling. He is warm and protective of his wife at times, yet cold and dismissive at others. For this reason, Lawrence’s character is confused and melancholy, struggling to understand the increasing number of unwelcome guests in her home. Moreover, her husband’s willful accommodation of these guests troubles her.

Other talented actors and actresses that play guests in the movie include Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson and Kristen Wiig. These intruders multiply throughout the movie, and the difference in the husband’s and wife’s responses fuel mother!’s central conflict.

mother! boldly explores issues far deeper than marriage strife and home makeovers. However, a movie must walk with structural basics before it can run with intellectualism. mother! fails to heed this wisdom. It neglects storytelling and narrative logic and instead delves into the surreal and metaphorical right away, which is problematic because the viewer is never given a reason to care.

In the first five minutes, Lawrence’s character has a disturbing vision of her home’s walls decaying. But so what? Why is this house in the middle of nowhere? Who is this lady? Will Lawrence ever smile? Of course, leaving such questions unanswered is strategic in the mystery genre. This uncertainty perplexes the viewer and draws them into the story. Yet a well-structured movie engages the viewer by giving information along the way that we must piece together.

mother! never does this.

It soon becomes clear that we will never be given the story’s context or development. Instead, Aronofsky incessantly beats us over the head with the supernatural. Lawrence’s character is therefore a draining protagonist, passively reacting to the madness that slowly unfolds around her. The audience thus suffers the same fate, never engaging with Lawrence in decision making or character development.

Aronofsky’s filmography goes a long way in helping make sense of the themes in mother!. Just how successful he is in exploring these deeper elements is up for debate, yet his films Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan offer possible answers to these questions. 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, looking at addiction and self-abuse, is painful to watch, despite its originality and social commentary. Aronofsky pulls no punches with Black Swan either, a 2010 psychological thriller focusing on the dangers of obsessive perfectionism. However, Black Swan also carries an  exhausting emotional weight. In each, Aronofsky seems unconcerned with how his philosophical musings seem to impact the viewer. He sees the world for what it is and unashamedly shares that view. However, this matter-of-fact approach to telling stories with consistently deep, universal issues quickly becomes unappealing for moviegoers.

Aronofsky’s lack of emotional reprieve and character development in mother! was unsurprising. He is too fixated on fleshing out multi-level allegories to entertain or engage us with these themes. In his latest work, Aronofsky takes the entire film to show us a conflict that started five minutes into the movie. The final act is therefore unbearably stultifying. Viewers hoping for a gratifying finale will be sorely disappointed. This movie’s emotional tone is as pale as its color palette. 

mother! reaches for thoughtfulness and conviction rarely seen among dramas. Its characters are both necessary and sufficient for Aronofsky’s allegories. This movie also demonstrates supreme focus on exploring its central themes throughout. However, this focus borders on tunnel vision, as mother! expresses clear disdain for viewer engagement and story. I never got to know Lawrence’s character nor was I given a reason to care about her struggles. I was too busy being confused and dismayed by her intruders. mother! may be a contemplative movie, but it is not an enjoyable one. For these reasons, it gets a 6/10 in my book.

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Luke Price (‘18) reviews movies for the life section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He is majoring in Engineering Science and Economics. In his spare time, Luke enjoys reading, checking out Nashville's latest burgers, napping and buying Star Wars shirts.