The Throwbacks: “mother!” 5 Years Later

By Christian DiMartino

Have many movies, in recent memory, started as much of a ruckus as Darren Aronofsky’s mother!? The movie, which was released on September 15, 2017, but had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks prior, was a movie so polarizing and so discussed in the moment that it’s kind of a surprise that the movie was a financial bomb. But… if you’ve seen the end result, depending on who you are, it’s pretty easy to see why it wasn’t for… everyone.

The trailer for this film was pretty vague, but gave off the impression that you were in for some sort of thrill-a-minute ride. That was not the case. Aronofsky and Paramount, the studio that quite courageously put this movie out there, were pretty hush-hush about what the movie was actually about. Actually, revisiting mother! for the first time in a few years, I placed myself in my own shoes watching it for the first time, which of course left me confused and bewildered, but because Aronofsky is my guy, intrigued. The end result was a movie in which Jennifer Lawrence is essentially put through mental torture, her anxiety through the roof, people treating her and her home like garbage, and it all culminates in a final act that is beyond bizarre and ultimately pretty harrowing and disturbing. So yeah, not exactly a fun time at the movies. The advertisements even tried cashing in on the disturbing elements, saying stuff like “You won’t forget where you were when you saw mother!.” A cheap ploy, and an unsuccessful one, but it’s true, I do remember.

But you know where I’m going with this, probably. Despite not making much money, the movie did ignite a conversation. People thought this movie was brilliant, or nonsense, or both. That Aronofsky was at the peak of his powers, or that he was high on his own supply and Paramount refused to take the keys away. Let me just say, that the first time I saw this movie, I was puzzled, annoyed, uncomfortable, disoriented, and ultimately disturbed but blown away. It’s a movie that seems to make sense, but doesn’t, until about the last 10 minutes. And once, and if, it all clicks into place for you, it unlocks the movie in an entirely different way. I remember talking about this movie for an hour in the parking lot once it was over, and the love for it only deepened.

Five years later, the love is still strong.

It should be said that when it comes to certain filmmakers, my head is very much up their ass. Darren is one of them. That’s right, we’re on a first name basis. My guy Darren, at the far too young age of 13, unlocked something in me when I discovered his 2008 masterpiece The Wrestler in 2009. With time I came across Requiem for a Dream, with the coup de gras being Black Swan in 2010. To make a long story short, my guy Darren makes movies that I want to see, which, I don’t know what that says about me. Because the bulk of his movies are weird, harrowing, unsettling, and haunting. They’re also unforgettable, and completely unlike anything anyone is putting out there. Which is probably why I’ve always swooned over mother!. It’s probably like my fourth favorite of his films, and it’s still one I hold in extremely high regard.

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (after I saw this movie, I referred to him as “Darin,” because whew) is a wild ride. A movie that, perhaps from its very inception, was designed for people to hate it. From minute one, this is an experience that leaves you asking questions, but the movie doesn’t really slow down, and nor do the questions. You find yourself going, “what’s the deal with that?” throughout the entire thing, and by the time you reach the final act, you will find yourself with way more questions than answers. Which, for a typical filmgoer, isn’t an easy sell. Not that people want their stuff spelled out for them, but if you went into this expecting a Jennifer Lawrence horror movie, my guy Darren didn’t exactly give you the memo that this ain’t that. This is a movie rife with symbolism and meaning, and sure that makes Darren and I sound pretentious. Yet if you sit on the experience long enough, you begin to spot the meaning, and it’s really quite brilliant. Unless of course, you saw this movie, hated it, and did your damndest to forget about it. Which is also possible, but after you see the last 10 minutes of this… yeah, good luck forgetting it.

How do I possibly review this movie without doing a deep dive? Well, I shall try. The film opens with the image of a very scarred woman’s face, surrounded by flames. We then see Javier Bardem’s character (not given an actual name) placing a jewel of some sort on a mantle, in a house that has been burnt. Upon placing the jewel on the mantle, the house is completely restored to its original form, with Lawrence’s mother character waking up (was she burnt too?) and saying, “baby?” (Always kind of funny to remember that’s the first and last word in the movie, considering… well, never mind). So yeah, from the jump, we’re thinking, “huh?” It doesn’t end there.

Lawrence and Bardem are a married couple, we gather. He’s an acclaimed writer, and she’s very devoted to him. They live in a quaint, rather beautiful house by a field in the middle of nowhere, and she’s currently working on making said house perfect (the production design in this is truly remarkable). We notice that the house has… a heart, and it’s beating. We also notice that there is a black spot on the floor that is causing a crack, and the crack turns into a hole, and it gets larger and spreads from floor to floor. Again, what? The plot is kicked into gear though with the arrival of a stranger (Ed Harris) who appears to be sick and is also a fan of Bardem’s. What’s funny watching this movie again is the way in which Aronofsky is giving off the impression that he’s telling a normal story, in the middle of weird stuff. Bardem and Harris have a nice evening, which eventually leads to a pretty weird sight: she finds the two men in the bathroom, and she sees what we can only assume is a hole in Harris’ back.

Again, huh?

The next day there is another knock, and it’s the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, absolutely incredible). Things get off to an awkward start with her fast. She burns herself, starts drinking early in the day, and confronts Lawrence about why she doesn’t want kids. It’s scenes like this that truly set the tone for the rest of the film, which provides way more discomfort. Actually the whole thing is discomforting, because Matthew Libatique’s magnificent cinematography is constantly focused on Lawrence’s facial expressions and it’s through this camerawork, and the disdain we have for the people around her, that leaves our blood boiling.

The mysterious couple cause a ruckus in a few ways. But things take a crazed turn with the arrival of their children (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) which results in one brother murdering the other. They decide to host a funeral service at the house, against Lawrence’s wishes, and the funeral crowd gets larger and larger, and rowdier, with people trying to do their own renovations to the place and people deliberately ignoring her (Jovan Adepo of The Leftovers and Emily Hampshire of Schitt’s Creek are in attendance, which I completely didn’t notice the first few times). Chaos ensues, and in order to cope with it Lawrence continuously drinks this weird yellow potion (the one thing I’m still uncertain of, from a symbolism standpoint).

It’s, again, a tough movie to describe without spoiling the whole thing, so I’m just going to stop. I didn’t even dive into the description of the house, or the random frog hopping around in their creepy basement. Or really anything about the last half of this movie. What I’ll say though is this: going into this, I was told that this was my guy Darren’s most disturbing movie. Now, this is the man who made Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, so I was of course morbidly intrigued. As the movie gets nuttier and nuttier, I kept thinking that it was just really weird and pretty bonkers, but not necessarily disturbing. Then, the last 10 minutes hits.

The thing about mother! is that unless you look beneath the surface, what are you really getting out of this experience? Because on the surface is a really weird movie in which Lawrence is seemingly punished for doing absolutely nothing wrong. But sit on it, unpack it, and you might see in it what I do. What do people make of this movie five years later? Some thought that it would certainly have a cult status, or end up being one of those movies with midnight screenings and stuff. I’m not really sure where the jury lies on this movie. I know where I do though, and maybe once my guy Darren graces our presences again this December with The Whale, we may be reevaluating it again.

I love this movie. Always have, always will. I love how fascinating and thought provoking is. It is also one of those that I enjoyed watching with other people to see how they reacted to it. It’s such a layered, strange but ingenious movie, and sure, maybe my guy Darren was high on his own supply. I don’t care. I love that a major studio took a chance on a movie this insane. Who is making movies like this right now? I have no clue, but obviously the only reason why this movie saw the light of day (I imagine) is Jennifer Lawrence, who was dating Aronofsky either during or after the filming, and swooned over the screenplay even as she was disturbed by it.

Where do we stand on J-Law these days? Of course she’s an Oscar winner and when she’s great, she’s really great. Yet the wheels sort of came off around the time of this movie, with duds like Passengers, X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Red Sparrow kind of tainting things. And she remained pretty quiet until last December’s Don’t Look Up. Personally, I think she’s great, and this might be her best performance. I thought she was great in Silver Linings Playbook, of course, and that might be a little more of a character. But this is a film that almost solely rests on her shoulders. Most of the film is focused on her face; all of the madness is seen through her eyes. She is also forced to do a lot of things that are both an actor’s dream and nightmare, and while the polarizing reception might’ve dinged her chances at an Oscar nomination, it’s deeply annoying that her and my guy Darren received Razzie nominations for this. Pfeiffer is also really magnetic in this and deserved Oscar attention. Bardem is of course great too. And what is up with that Kristen Wiig appearance? I mean I guess she’s a more normal element than a lot of the other kookiness here.

I’m not sure if mother! will ever have a bigger fan than I, and that’s okay. My guy Darren and I are weirdos, what can I say? I think this movie is evergreen. Maybe not a fun movie, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but an unforgettable, blood-curdling, nightmarish fever dream that I’ll never forget, and could honestly talk about endlessly. And again, hopefully The Whale will be another reason for us to talk about it again. Can’t wait.


2 responses to “The Throwbacks: “mother!” 5 Years Later”

  1. […] admitted to regretting, looked great and made decent money, but it didn’t work; I adored mother! and think she does some of her best work, but it tanked; I despised Red Sparrow; and although […]


  2. […] this movie, I can’t reason with you I suppose. Because something like Aronofsky’s mother!, by design, wasn’t meant for everyone. I found this to be an effective story, if maybe […]


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