From the moment that mother!, the latest film by auteur Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) begins, we are told that this is not a movie that strives for realism. The dialogue is dreamlike, the same mysterious yellow powder is both consumed as medicine and mixed into plaster, a house's heart literally beats, and no one has actual names. So are we to believe this is a parable? Allegory? Metaphor? But for what? I have some ideas, but I'm concerned that the likeliest explanation is the one that's least kind to Aronofsky, who both wrote and directed the film while (bafflingly, given the movie's apparent thesis) reportedly romancing star Jennifer Lawrence.
We're trapped with Lawrence (billed in the credits only as "Mother") in a house with no roads in or out, a house she rebuilt for supposed love "Him" (Javier Bardem) after it was burned to the ground. Despite this lack of roads, a couple appears: "Man" (Ed Harris) and "Woman" (Michelle Pfeiffer, who hasn't delivered lines with this level of casual venom since she donned black vinyl and cracked a whip at Michael Keaton). As if in a nightmare, the destructive pair refuses to leave, and the rising tide of frenzy as more and more people arrive comprises the plot (if we are to call it that) of the film.
There's going to be a lot of talk, maybe, maybe too much talk about what mother! is "all about." But (like the phrase I bogarted in the previous sentence), mother! is not a rebel song, nor is it saying much that is new. This is Lady In The Water meets The Rose meets Notting Hill meets whatever show Dario Argento might pitch were he to meet executives from HGTV.
That said, this is not the meandering casserole of the poseur who assembles every piece of detritus from the workroom floor and presents it as art. Every creak, breath, and drop is precisely laid, and with specific intention. And the intention appears to be ugliness, though not in appearance, given its toothsome cast and its painstaking art direction. There's a generous side of torture porn, especially in the third act when the movie casts off its art-house levels of atmospheric dread for full-on grand guignol, including at least two scenes of Lawrence's debasement that make Lars von Trier look like Tyler Perry.
Of course, Aronofsky was already no slouch in the degradation of beautiful women department, with Natalie Portman's bruised and emaciated turn in Black Swan (a similarly silent-in-the-face-of-horrors protagonist) and Jennifer Connelly's group sex for drugs scene in Requiem. One could argue, perhaps, that Lawrence by all accounts a smart, self-sufficient woman knew what she was getting into when she accepted a role as a near-voiceless doormat who's (after many other abuses) the subject of a bare-breasted beating... for our grim edification? Shock? Dismay?
Yes, it's that specific intention I continue to question, as mother! seems to be that fable about the scorpion and the frog writ extremely large. You know the one, it's that "it's in my nature" story that every asshole references when you ask them to stop being an asshole.
The asshole here is "Him," a supposed poet (not a screenwriter/director! A poet! Yeah, that's the ticket!) struggling with the creative process, a process that requires the presence of "Mother" but also necessitates her marginalization (and worse). It takes a definite (though, sadly, all too common) kind of man to fully equate a human baby and the experience of motherhood with the creation of (a film, book, a poem, HMM MAYBE A MOVIE), and "Him" is that man, using up the woman's creation to seemingly fuel his own, without any negative consequence or censure.
There's also a glittering contempt for the audience in mother! (not unlike in Requiem!), perhaps the only figure that seems to disgust Aronofsky more than the unfortunate necessity that is "Mother." In this allegory, the enablers, fans, and consumers of art (HMM MAYBE MOVIES) commit perhaps the darkest and worst of human crimes, again and again, as the creator watches, unscathed.
And then Aronofsky smothers any other possible interpretation for the surreal events of the film with a final-scene explanation from "Him" as explicit as one at the climax of an episode of Scooby Doo. Dead-ended is any chance to read the film as a parable about the state of this country (which suddenly seemed like the territory of a bad dream to many after last November). Gone also is a possible read as a metaphor for reproductive rights, or the body horror of the transmutation that is birth and motherhood. Only one path is allowed us by the creator, and it isn't a pretty one, it's the "sorry, babe, it's in my nature" one.
Maya Angelou famously said "when people show you who they are, believe them.” If we are to believe what Aronofsky has shown us, he reviles us, he hates those who fuel his creativity, and he doesn't feel even a little bad about who knows it. In the end, he seems to be willing to admit, he has no heart — and neither does mother!, leaving us in the audience with nothing we can really, truly sink our teeth into.