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Monday, November 13, 2017

mother!

Yes, that's how you punctuate this film's title. And, no, that's not the weirdest thing about it. Not by a very, very long shot.

Please note, I may discuss some plot points in this review but I am reluctant to call them spoilers - because the film isn't really about its plot, which, as it so happens is literally thousands of years old. Still, if you want to know absolutely nothing about the film going in then feel free to not read this review until you've seen it. Then again, in this case, you might actually want to know a bit about what the film is before deciding to see it. That start-rating should give you an idea of how much I loved it but it's certainly not for everyone. Indeed, I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who walked out of the screening I saw of the film who actively liked it. Take that as you will.

Incidentally, I know I am guilty of using the personal pronoun a lot in my reviews, perhaps even too much so, but that practice has never been more appropriate than it is here. Even attempting any sort of objective distance with this film would be unbelievably foolish: this is a film that is all about what you, as an individual, bring to and take from it. 

Oh and hey, look out for a mini Twin Peaks review in the middle of the whole thing. It kind of fits but going off on a random tangent also feels perfectly appropriate for this particular movie.

Enough with the preamble. Onto the review...


After his audacious, Midrash-influenced take on the Noah story, Darren Aronofsky - a Jewish atheist, for what it's worth - sets his sights rather wider in a film that jumps straight from the early sections of Genesis (specifically Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel) to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, all via an exploration of human nature and global warming/ ecological waste. Ambitious doesn't begin to cover it but to Aronofsky's great credit, this is less a somber, academic polemic as it is a wild, visceral and unquestionably polarizing piece of absurdist filmmaking.

No doubt taking his cues from the obscure Jewish idea that God kept destroying the world until he got it right (he surely came across this idea in his research for Noah; it's way too much of a coincidence for this not to be the case) Aronofsky tells a rather blatant allegory involving an unnamed husband and wife, who live in a house in the middle of an open field that "Mother" spends all of her time trying to perfect for her writer husband until a strange visitor, named only "man" comes along and slowly starts to corrupt their perfect paradise after reaching for the one artifact in the house that he is absolutely forbidden from going near. Get it?

The blatancy of the allegories hardly stop here and the more they are piled on top of one another the more dizzying the effect becomes. The film starts with an incredible sense of unease and unnerving creepiness as one of the most archetypal stories in human history unfolds as a slow-burning home invasion thriller of a fragile woman being torn down by unwanted visitors. As mother! progresses, however, and the characters become less human and more blatantly archetypal and the action ramps up from its initial slow-burn to a deliriously gory and violent ending, that sense of unease transforms into something that will either totally repulse you or have you on the brink of gleeful laughter.

How you ultimately react will depend not just on your basic tastes and personal constitution but how far into the metaphor you have fallen by the film's (more or less) halfway point. If you're still in a literal state of mind and take these characters as people, you will no doubt find the second half of the film damn-near unbearable as it gets uglier, more bombastic, more gruesome (Jesus' fate is even worse here than in the New Testament) and ultimately unbearably tragic. If you're like me, however, and the characters have firmly transformed in your mind into little more than walking archetypes and you see the things that happen to them as a ludicrously exaggerated take on both the Bible and the human condition, the more fun it becomes and the more thought-provoking it is.

Ideally, you should find some sort of balance between the two as the latter gives you the context in which to enjoy the later parts of the film, while the former provides great emotional resonance. I lean far more towards the latter - hence my unabashed enjoyment of the film - but I was able to draw just enough from the former to ensure that it wasn't just a bonkers intellectual exercise and that some of the really horrible and heartbreaking stuff still resonates.

I am undeniably built to enjoy this film more than, I dare say, 90% of audiences out there. First, as a liberal Modern Orthodoxish Jew, I absolutely love that even if he's an unabashed atheist, Aronofsky finds plenty of richness in Biblical tales (especially from the Hebrew Bible, or as we Jews call it, the Written Torah) and can offer such unique spins on them. Biblical literalists and militant "New-Atheists" can waste their time arguing over whether the story of the Garden of Eden ever literally happened; Aronofsky understands that its true value is what it has to say about humanity and our relationship with both God and the universe in which we were placed. It's mythology that surely even the greatest non-believers can appreciate. 

Second, though I certainly have my limits regarding "unconventional cinema" (see the later works of one Terence Malick), I do sometimes love a good bit of surrealism or, better yet, absurdism in my cinema (and TV, literary and comic book) diet. In particular, I love (most of) the films and TV of David Lynch and mother! came along just as I was beginning to go through withdrawals of not having Lynch and Mark Frost's gloriously unhinged Twin Peaks: The Return to watch every week as the show finally ended its epic 18-episode run with one of its most compelling and infuriatingly oblique episodes to date.

The nominal third season of Twin Peaks (it's so different from its preceding two, early '90s seasons that it's hard to see it as anything but a distinct piece in much the same way that the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, surely was) was as delightful as it was because you never, ever had any idea where it would go from one scene to the next. It could be maddening as hell but it could also be scary, funny, thrilling and even genuinely sweet and warm-hearted as it lurched from absurdist comedy to unsettling horror to grounded crime drama to evocative surrealism in a way that is somehow both breathless and very, very deliberately paced. It was off the hook and I loved almost every minute of it - and I'm sure most audiences would hate it within its first ten minutes.     

mother! is hardly just a Lynch rip-off - and, frankly, its story is much more linear and its allegories way more blatant than Lynch at his nuttiest - but it scratches a very similar itch. While I'm not one to lament the proliferation of superhero films or the general state of the movie industry, you see enough mainstream films and they start to blend into one another. Love it or hate it, mother! is not just another movie and it's not something to leave your imagination any time soon, Even those who despised every second of it would find it hard to argue with that.

It's also undeniable that mother! is the product of a group of very talented people doing their jobs really, really well. The lack of music brings the incredible sound-design to full focus while the cinematography, which barely strays from close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence for a second, is (sometimes almost literally) breathtaking. There's also never a sense that Aronofsky let the film move out of his control. Love it or hate it, it's impossible to deny that this is clearly the film that Darren Aronofsky wanted to make.

As for the cast, the film is filled with exceptional supporting performances from the likes of Ed Harris, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kristen Wiig, but this is Jennifer Lawrence's film all the way. She has already long established herself as a brilliant, versatile actress who often plays characters far from her loveable public persona but she is really something else in mother! Anyone who still doubts her status as this generation's Merryl Streep after seeing, no, experiencing her magnificent work here as no one less than Mother Nature is in a state of denial from which no shovel in the world is big enough to dig you out. She's (literally) a force of nature in mother! and it's hard to imagine that she doesn't already have her next Oscar securely in the bag.

I certainly can't easily recommend mother! even to the biggest Jennifer Lawrence fans what with it being as obviously and understandably polarizing as it is but if you're looking for a film to really push what you expect from a trip to the cinema, you've hit the jackpot.



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