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Review: mother! – “A unique cinematic experience”

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It’s hard to talk about mother! and genuinely convey what’s it all about without ever falling into dangerous spoiler territory. A genre-bending attack of the senses, Darren Aronofsky’s latest effort delivers – more than anything – a unique cinematic experience, which can’t leave viewers indifferent. That’s the utmost achievement for a filmmaker: grabbing and holding the audience’s attention from start to finish.

The jury is out though on whether the film is just a pretentious mind-f**k for its own sake or a clever, yet over-the-top allegory about the insanity of life and the sickness of human nature. Either way, we can’t ignore the scope and ambition of a filmmaker who – just like Christopher Nolan with Dunkirk – has crafted a piece of entertainment meant to be enjoyed on the silver screen with the surround system cranked up to the max.

Even if you’re familiar with some of the director’s most “out there” titles like Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain and Black Swan, what you’re bound to go through with mother! is nothing you could ever predict. The inevitable WTF! reaction is not really about the film starting out like a taut and weird home invasion horror-thriller and then spinning into something else. We’ve already been there and done that. What matters here is the crazy nature of that new direction it takes and the intense crescendo of ludicrousness that its puzzled viewers are led into.

The way the story is set up will undoubtedly frustrate many audience members from the get-go as any sense of time and place is missing alongside any other specific detail, starting with the characters’ names. Jennifer Lawrence is the titular mother, whilst Javier Bardem is referred to as “him” in the script. He is a renowned poet with writer’s block who lives with his 20 years younger wife in an isolated mansion hidden deep down in some countryside, God only knows where.

The young woman has given up any potential career path to help him rebuild and renovate his childhood home that had befallen victim of a devastating fire. As the creatively constipated poet spends his days trying to find his lost muse, his adoring wife continues the patient restoration of the beautiful house bit by bit. One evening, the sudden and unexpected arrival of a man (Ed Harris) – an orthopaedic doctor, who apparently teaches at a nearby university – interrupts the couple’s idyllic life. The stranger is looking for temporary shelter but his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up at the door the following morning and although the poet seems excited by such unexpected visits, mother welcomes the guests reluctantly, to say the least.

As the odd couple settles in, progressively taking over the space and invading their hosts’ privacy, mother becomes more and more distressed by their presence. Things then escalate for the worst rather quickly upon the arrival of the couple’s arguing sons (played by real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), who disrupt the mansion’s tranquil life with the kind of drama from which there’s no return.

Discussing the plot any further would do a great disservice to experiencing what Aronofsky has concocted for his audience. This isn’t just a reviewer’s attempt at avoiding spoilers. It’s mainly the frustration with a script that’s too focused on its high concept to be able to craft characters and a situation that we can become invested in emotionally.

Sure, the whole point behind the film’s crazy idea is to create an allegorical journey that stimulates your senses and makes you ponder about the state of the world and of us as a species. It’s a smart, even noble goal to have as a storyteller but even the most cryptic philosophical rumination should provide something to cling onto.

The script’s fallacies are worsened by the book-ended prologue, which sets the stage for the cyclical nature of the premise. This narrative choice results in softening the shock effect of the story and makes us care even less about the journey of Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Yet, both the leading lady and the rest of the cast are formidable at playing along with Aronofsky’s insane nightmare without ever betraying the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Michelle Pfeiffer is especially worthy of mention for the simple reason she is magnificent and we need to see her talent on the big screen again more regularly.

I’m not a fan of love-or-hate reactions and I tend to always find redeeming qualities in films that wind up not being my preferred kind of storytelling. Truth is mother! ticks several boxes of what appeals to my cinematic curiosity. I just wish Aronofsky had grounded the same concept within a story where I could actually care about any of it. By the time the screen cuts to black you just feel bruised and battered by the overwhelming third act and cheated by that book ending you were expecting after the film’s prologue.

I can’t fault the filmmaker for trying to create something original, even if the result is messy. As an overall fan of his cinema, I commend the display of talent behind the craft that making mother! evidently entails. However, hearing how the idea came to him as a reaction to the dreary times we’re living in, I think the film would’ve been much more affecting if he also offered any hint at how to change things rather than only relish in the darkness. As it stands, mother! merely reiterates feelings we are used to experiencing on a daily basis when we switch on the news and look back at our history, only to realize once again that nothing ever changes because we don’t change…

Mother is in UK cinemas from September 15th.

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