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Review: mother!

September 15, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

A slow burn psychological thriller turned full on horror movie freakout in the shocking and unforgettable last act, mother! is the latest work from Darren Aronofsky, and it’s the sort of film that should be seen knowing as little as possible, but with ample time to think and talk about it afterwards.

The film follows a celebrated poet (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), who live in a decaying old house that she is fixing up to start a family, while he struggles to find inspiration to write new material.  Their lives are upended when a mysterious visitor (Ed Harris) arrives at their house asking for a place to stay, and then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up shortly after, nosing her way into their private lives.  And that’s all you need to know before going in.

There are multiple ways you can read the film.  It plays as both a richly layered religious allegory that brilliantly reimagines the Old Testament stories that provide the cornerstone of Abrahamic faith beliefs, and as a metaphorical environmental fable about how we are destroying Mother Earth, who is personified through the film’s title character.  Once we start to realize what mother! is trying to say, it becomes an absolutely mind blowing experience, allowing us to think back on all the little elements along the way that add to its grand biblical narrative.

The film is carried by a gripping performance from Jennifer Lawrence, who fearlessly throws herself into even the most demanding elements of the role, with the camera always trained either on her face, over her shoulder or from her perspective to ensure she remains the guiding point for the audience.  She’s mesmerizing to watch.  I spoke to someone who criticized her character as being passive, but I don’t think this is the case.  She tries desperately to keep the visitors from taking over her house, but remains helpless to stop them, like how the planet is ultimately incapable of stopping us from destroying it.

When you look beneath the surface of mother!, the film is tackling no less than the state of the world right now, and how we are pillaging creation and destroying natural resources through rioting, looting and environmental destruction.  We take and take until there is nothing left.  The last act becomes relentless in its pace and is almost disorienting to watch, becoming a gripping symphony of shocking moments and all-encompassing sound design.  Some of the images that are conjured up are so twisted that the film will surely become an endurance test for less prepared audience members, evidenced by the various walkouts at the TIFF screening, but those who can handle it should absolutely stick with it.

The film blends the cerebral and spiritual qualities of Darren Aronofsky’s earlier works like Pi and The Fountain, with the psychological elements of Black Swan and the religious storytelling of Noah, to offer a wholly unique experience that further cements him as an entirely singular filmmaker.  Although mother! is sure to be one of the most divisive movies of the year, it’s also one of the boldest and most ambitious studio pictures to come along in quite some time.  This is an intense, disturbing and fascinating work that gives us plenty of symbolism to mull over and dissect.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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