For all our coverage of Toronto International Film Festival 2017, click here.
There’s a number of reasons why you haven’t seen much of Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! (referred to afterwards here with traditional grammar and punctuation free) outside of a couple of posters, TV spots, and a short trailer that’s meant to whet the palette for a film that doesn’t totally exist.
Part of that is that Mother is an utterly impossible film to advertise to the general public without having most people run for the exits, and God help the person who walks into this completely free of any context whatsoever about this (“Give me tickets for the one about the blonde mom,” says Cheryl at the Regal in Wichita, and the cashier gives her a ticket for this movie when she actually meant Home Again).
You very well may love it — amateur semiotic analysts and internet forums will have a field day with this one — or you might hate it with every fiber of your being, as many of the awards-oriented critics have, being fooled by the promise of both top-flight talent and the promise of its evocative poster design. What it most certainly is is consensus-proof, and even now I’m having an extraordinarily difficult time trying to figure out whether or not I even liked it. But it is without a doubt one of the most genuinely interesting films of the year, and is well worth your time and consideration even if it becomes a hate-watch for you.
It is only partially the house-based horror that you have witnessed in all of the previews, with Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem welcoming in two odd houseguests (Ed Harris and a fabulous Michelle Pfeiffer) who seem to have nefarious purposes. It’s a weird fusion of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and any number of odd-guests-with-secrets films and Aronofsky doesn’t make any attempts to improve on either format.
That’s mainly in the first 45 minutes, and it plays about as well as you think it would; Aronofsky doing broad chamber horror which isn’t exactly his bag. Man, aren’t these strangers creepy man, the film occasionally seems to say, which is funny, given that they’ll disappear soon enough and fail to really return. It’s largely thrill-free if not for the quality of its esteemed performers, though I was initially puzzled by what the script is asking Lawrence to do here. Then, right around that 45-minute mark, Aronofsky flips it into something metaphorical and broad and occasionally downright thrilling and hilarious.
It’s as if Children of Men-era Curaon directed an adaptation of The Giving Tree and decided to add a little of Persona-era Bergman to the mixture. Its second half features one of the most bravura displays of don’t-give-a-fuck-about-the-crowd artistry that you’re going to see all year, and it caused my audience to occasionally cackle with either spite or glee, I guess, depending on where you sat in the theater. To say more with regards to the specifics would ruin the fun of it, so I can only talk about it in thematic terms.
Mother is by far the most personal and thematically ambitious film Aronofsky’s made since The Fountain, and it’s scope (metaphorically, at least) rivals that of his last film, the unfairly-maligned Noah. Both of those films share a biblical and ecological through-line, though this new parable is decidedly one of a more New Testament variety, despite the allusions to Cain and Abel near the end of the film’s first act, and the ecological aspects of it sort of begin and end with the notion of a “mother Earth.” He’s shaded so much of the film with the black and red letters of scripture to obscure some of the more close-to-the-chest aspects of the work away from the audience, though the opening shot tells you all you need to know on that level, given that you know a tiny, tiny bit about the man’s personal life. It’s him reckoning with the fact that, on some level, he might be a cruel and empty soul, damning the rest of the unwashed and filthy with him its as large as a pen as he possibly can, as he unleashes torment after torment on Lawrence, his current beau. One could argue that this is an indictment of the male artist on a number of levels: Bardem’s cruelty, masked with some sort of approximation of loving kindness, is wholly familiar to anyone who’s ever had a shitty writer for an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, and Lawerence’s killer fucking take-down of him near the end has an extended resonance in that light.
Likewise, the photography improves as the movie progresses, as the house’s perimeters adjust and contract with the changes in style and tone, and the tightness initially on each interior, on each face within it, reveals itself to be a ruse. It’s a bait-and-switch on par with the rest of the film itself, and by the end it’s as expansive and odd as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s warehouse in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.
Does it wholly work? I don’t necessarily think so — Aronofsky’s self-crit can only go so far before Mother’s finale starts to become a little bit tedious, and the abandonment of Harris and Pfeiffer after such a short time with them feels oddly cruel — but I don’t know if there’s any other particular way that he could make this movie (imagine giving him notes on the cut here after you see it) and have it hold the weird allure and awe that it possess in spades near the end. Mother is a creative apocalypse for the role of author and all of the power that the title wields and serves as a fascinating demarcation point in the career of one of our generation’s most visible filmmakers.
‘Mother’ opens Thursday (September 14). Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.