The President is a liar and a rapist. Hurricanes rain down biblical style wrath the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in generations. Man’s inhumanity to man is a relentless drumbeat of daily headlines, and basic civility between those who agree on almost but not quite everything seems ready to collapse at any moment. This is the world of 2017, and this is the world that birthed Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! A defiant howl against what feels like the breakdown of society itself, the film isn’t crafted for the faint of heart, nor should it be. Audiences and critics are rejecting it in droves if opening box office numbers and review amalgamation sites are to be believed, perhaps expecting the mainstream horror thriller the ad campaign deviously promises and then being truly horrified at the ugly Dorian Gray-style mirror the film holds up to America’s face, filled with corrupted beauty and mob mentality madness. There’s no doubt that you the viewer are meant to walk out of the theater in a brutalized silence, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t a high wire act masterpiece.
Aronofsky’s quite comfortable swimming in the same dark waters that Lynch, Bunuel and many other surrealists dive into with regularity; he’s made a career of it, and on occasion even found critical and box office success doing it, as in the identity bending Black Swan. With Mother!, he’s doubled down on a symbolism filled nightmare scape, mixing and matching plenty of horror tropes (a disturbing house, plenty of blood, stranger danger galore) but never allowing the flow to fall into anything approaching a genre comfort zone. He’s taken the angelic face of Jennifer Lawrence and turned it into a trap for all of us, with the camera locking in on her increasingly confused, angry and frightened visage throughout—while the lead performer should be our guide throughout the story, she’s given no tools to work with, no road map, no explanations, so neither are we. Javier Bardem is her chilling man child of a husband, an artist whose focus on adulation over accomplishment serves as a cutting parody of the aging celebrity with a trophy wife as well as a none too subtle nod towards the current resident of the White House. As their pristine renovated home turns into a demonic bacchanal, with characters blinking in and out of existence and humanity portrayed as little more than an internet comment section run amok, Aronofsky drags the viewer alongside Lawrence into chaos and madness with relentless glee. It’s this glee at how emotionally disturbing Mother! is that I suspect is putting off many theater goers; sometimes the first swipe at a piece of art this brazenly obtuse yet intimate is so effective that it sends its audience screaming for the exits. Have great faith that, while you may be repelled by what the film puts you through, it’s all very much part of the plan.
Last year audiences had the same disdain for Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a similarly singular workout that never commits to being a “horror movie” until it’s so far beyond that definition that it’s achieved True Art status, which isn’t supposed to be easy and rarely tries to be. That film’s disgusting deconstruction of America’s dedication to surface above all else is mirrored in the layered but loud assault on our society’s treatment of the planet and each other in Mother! It starts with a telling sequence that I’ll not spoil here, but hints at cycles of behavior that are as old as time, and as inescapable. Darren Aronofsky blew through the first draft of this script in five days by his account, and the resulting film feels every bit the guttural reaction to 2017 that you’d expect from one of America’s leading provocateurs.