Movie Review: Allegory Bludgeons Story in Aronofsky’s 'Mother!'

Movie Review: Allegory Bludgeons Story in Aronofsky’s 'Mother!'

Jennifer Lawrence stars as the wife of a renowned poet (played by Javier Bardem) in Mother!, the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, the director behind Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and other acclaimed features. 

At an isolated country estate that was once the Bardem character’s childhood home, the poet and his wife are busy restoring the house to its former glory. 

But their lives are interrupted by the arrival of a sickly man (played by Ed Harris), and shortly after by his aggressive wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). It turns out that the man is a fan of the poet… and to the chagrin of the poet’s wife, the new couple is invited to stay with them. Indefinitely. 

The first half-hour of Mother! Is quite masterfully directed, and generates and genuine sense of horror-movie dread as we slowly discover that there’s something not quite right about the man or his wife. Or the poet, and his house: a creepy door-like structure in the basement seems like it might be the gate to hell. 

I’m thinking this thing will develop along the lines of a Rosemary’s Baby. We’re along for the ride with the Jennifer Lawrence’s befuddled character as she discovers what’s really going on here. 

But then as we learn more, something strange happens. It turns out that the poet isn’t really the poet, his house isn’t really his house, the man and his wife aren’t really the man and his wife, the house isn’t the house. Even the Jennifer Lawrence character is something else entirely. 

Instead, the entire movie is a giant allegory that may or may not carry some great resonance (that depends on the viewer) but undeniably does not deliver on the surface-level narrative that was set up in the first act. 

After a certain point, the film ceases to work on any kind of logical level: Aronofsky abandons the compelling story of the poet and his wife and the two strangers in favor of pure metaphor, and Mother! becomes the kind of movie that Charlie Kaufman was satirizing in Adaptation: the hero, villain, and damsel in distress are all the same person, and the movie is taking place in the mind of the protagonist. 

But it isn’t even that, and we're stuck with the film for an hour after the reveal. There’s no logical explanation for the events we’re seeing on the screen, no reason for any of it to be happening, not even “it was all a dream.” The movie ceases to be an allegory and becomes a literal representation of what was being allegorized.

That didn’t work for me, and I can’t imagine any scenario in which it could work: an allegory has two parts, the story and the deeper metaphorical meaning behind it. But Mother! completely abandons the story and becomes only the message. How can this possibly work on a dramatic level?

The second half of Mother!, during which we clearly realize what is going on and yet Aronofsky relentlessly beats us over the head with his message, is one of the most distressing periods I can recall having in a cinema. I get it. I get it! Let me out of here. 

I’m a big fan of the director’s previous work; The Fountain is one of the most underrated movies of the last 20 years. But not only did this one not do it for me, it actively annoyed and upset me. 

Despite (mostly) positive reviews from critics, Mother! scored a rare “F” Cinemascore, a rating conducted by polling average moviegoers after seeing the film. Many films wear an “F” Cinemascore as a badge of pride in subverting audience expectations; Killing Them Softly and Soderbergh’s Solaris remake are genuinely great films that succeed by going against the tide. 

But I’m with the masses on this one. Mother!, please. 

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