Movies, like novels, are stories. But, perhaps even more than a novel, a movie is like a poem. A movie takes the basic units of narrative — image and word — and turns them into emotion. And, as we’ve been told before, a poem should not mean but be. “Mother!,” unfortunately, only exists to mean, and falls apart completely if it steps outside the limitations of it’s allegory.
In “Mother!” Jennifer Lawrence (“Passengers”) is the young wife of Javier Bardem (“Skyfall”). Both spend the entire movie nameless as they move around each other in their isolated mansion. Lawrence is fixing up the house, rebuilding it from the ashes of a fire. She walks around barefoot, plastering walls and trying desperately to show her dismissive poet husband how much she loves him.
Their home is gradually invaded by a couple, also nameless, who are fans of the poet’s work. Lawrence and the audience watch in awe and Bardem lets the couple take over their home. It turns out, their stay opens Pandora’s box and soon the house is bursting with unnaturally rude houseguests who multiply exponentially and inexplicably. Lawrence’s patience is pushed to a breaking point.
If “Mother!” stayed in the world of dark domestic comedy, it might work. But, alas, it was made by Hollywood’s heaviest hand, Darren Arnofsky (“Noah”). So instead “Mother!” throws itself down the allegory rabbit hole and promptly spirals out of control.
Allegory is tricky because it’s easy to let the allegory take complete narrative control. Movies like “Tree of Life” or “Natural Born Killers” work because they let you fall so deeply in them that you forget X equals Y and This means That. They prioritize being over meaning. That’s where this film’s issues begin. It’s too caught up in it’s own tricks to be anything more than the sum of them.
It doesn’t help that the film’s choice allegory is biblical. And the entire Bible at that. As people pour into Mother’s house it becomes a microcosm for all the evils of the world — a reverse Eden of sorts. Similarly, Mother becomes an embodiment of all women — silenced, ignored, infantilized and ultimately brutally attacked.
I’m sure there’s a long list of things Darren Arnofsky can’t do, but first on that list is subtlety. That’s not a death sentence, but it can be an Achilles heel. For Arnofsky, the latter is creeping closer and closer to the former. There is something essential missing from the film — depth, profundity, something more challenging than allegory and violence.
Arnofsky’s films are visceral — I left the theater craving a hot shower and a Valium. Which is to say, the only emotion he’s managed to convey thus far in his twenty-year career is disgust. It’s become quite apparent that he’s run out of tricks. “Mother!” gave me cold sweats and confirmation that no matter how hard I try I will never be compelled by the deep unpleasantness of Arnofsky’s world.
Disgust is boring because disgust is easy. Especially when it’s achieved, as it is in “Mother!” via a rapid succession of disturbing images. That’s why I’m hesitant to label this a “horror” film. There’s no horror in “Mother!” and it’s sorely lacking for that fact.
“Mother!” is nothing but a movie made for film school term papers and sub-reddit echo-chambers. Its focus was so far in post-production that it forgot to be any good.