During the end credits of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, the “punk poet laureate” Patti Smith croons a smoky cover of the Skeeter Davis 1962 hit “The End of the World.” As a exhaling tonic signaling the end of the 121 harrowing minutes that came before it, the lyrics of the song sink in and work to further the haunting reflection to be found from the film. Verses 3 and 4 in particular vocalize:
I wake up in the morning and I wonder/Why everything’s the same as it was/I can’t understand, no, I can’t understand/How life goes on the way it does
Why does my heart go on beating/Why do these eyes of mine cry/Don’t they know it’s the end of the world/It ended when you said goodbye
Reading into those lyrics becomes a gateway into the wildly varying interpretations to be found from mother!. Excuse the language, it’s a mindf--k of a film that can, depending on the amount of f--k already in your mind, become an audacious experience to revere or agonizing one to revile.
What unfolds in mother! is a narrative that teeters between dream and logic. Aronofsky himself identifies it as a “psychological freak out” and instructs to not “over-explain” it. Less is indeed more. Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence is the nameless May-December wife of a struggling influential writer, played by fellow Oscar winner Javier Bardem. They share an idyllic country estate that she has been restoring on her own while her husband focuses on his next great work. Longing for more spousal attention and affection but marginalized by domesticity to silent submissiveness, the woman’s fragility and connected anxiety are paralyzing.
Her comfort levels are tested when her husband welcomes an unannounced older stranger (Ed Harris) to stay in their home. The man turns out to be a devoted-but-dying fan of his work and is soon followed by his vampish wife (Michelle Pfieffer, who still has all of her alluring power) and combative sons (real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). None of the guests are who they seem. The writer’s personality changes around other people and the entire house setting constricts with more tension and mystery. The plot thickens and sickens when the wife becomes pregnant with child.
True to his undoubted talent, Darren Aronofsky crafts this methodical breakdown with scintillating craftsmanship. Hunger Games series production designer Philip Messina and the team of art directors and set decorators at his disposal create a daunting household capable of hiding sightlines and bouncing a supreme sound mix of creeks and clangs off the walls and floors. The manufactured atmosphere is made all the more suspenseful by the narrow squint and neck turns of Matthew Libatique’s camera. Aronofsky’s regular director of photography shadows and encircles its visual gaze nearly entirely on Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly withering face in stark close quarters.
The cinematic eye captures the gamut of Lawrence’s expressions from shock and stupify to distress and delusion. Challenged to the point of tearing her diaphragm from hyperventilation during production, Lawrence delivers arguably her most subtly emotive performance to date. Normally, she’s the unhinged one with a screw loose. Seeing that restraint is impressive and jarring.
The technical and performance merits are unquestioned. Where the divisiveness for mother! will arise from the substance, metaphors, and connotations. Reactions will range across those appalled to others completely enraptured. This is beyond talking about cups of tea or other broad comparisons. What you will unpack is entirely unique.
There is extreme thematic and visceral content in mother! that will rattle even the toughest souls. Metaphorical imagery and symbolism are everywhere, and the number of literal and figurative interpretations of what is implicitly or explicitly transpiring can kill as many brain cells as it multiplies. The film begs endless questioning, which is entirely commendable and even fascinating. Still, surviving and absorbing the film becomes a maddening experience. In the end, what is evident to celebrate is also categorically impossible to fully condone.
LESSON #1: PICK AN INTERPRETATION AND RUN WITH IT-- Who represents who or what represents what? How much of this film could be autobiographical to the director and his real-life squeeze and on-screen muse? Is this a fiery lashing-out reaction to the creative process destroyed by celebrity, fandom, and criticism? The Rosemary’s Baby parallels presented in the film’s marketing are just one leaf of many falling off a larger rotting tree.
LESSON #2: DON’T LET STRANGERS STAY IN YOUR HOUSE-- Visitors, especially adoring fans, are lovely, but sip a drink with them, shake their hand, and send them to a hotel to visit them again the next day. You don’t know what kind of crazy you are allowing in your home.
LESSON #3: HOUSES HAVE BEATING HEARTS-- In a literal fashion, houses have systems and networks of infrastructure with fuse box or furnace-supplied energy at their centers. Figuratively, the true beating heart of a house is the person who maintains the place, which is the wife in this case. It’s her world, her solace, and her molded sculpture. When outside forces harm the house, the heart gets upset.
LESSON #4: PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SPOUSE-- Peel away all of the multiple meanings and titillating inferences in this film and you will find a distant married couple. They both claim they love each other, but warp their sacrifices and devotions to each other in unhelpful and mismatched ways. If each were more aware of their partner’s tendencies, behaviors, words, and levels of happiness, a great deal of strife could be avoided.