I’m his father.
And I’m his mother!
In the midst of all the chaos and controversy surrounding this movie, a central truth has been missed, I think. While the critics wrangle over the movie as a singular artistic vision, the rest of us question whether that actually means anything about the film’s quality. While the bloggers argue over the films religious themes, religious folks bristle in angry offense. While the audiences grade the film as harsh as they can, the artists question the status of film criticism in a climate of aggregation, percentages & letter grades. The film is perhaps an artistic masterwork or perhaps a piece of trash. It’s a film for the ages or it gets an F rating. And after all the yelling dies down, what we’re left with, and what future generations of film watchers who revisit mother will find, is that most unremarkable thing, a movie that essentially washes out to mediocre.
Which is too bad, really. The film does have a lot on its mind and it’s clearly a carefully constructed film. The first hour, which I’ve seen a lot of people slam, is the half of the movie that really works for me. It’s strange, ambiguous, carefully calibrated to find horror in increasingly weird and tense encounters with overly intrusive strangers. The acting is really stellar here. Lawrence is brilliant in this first hour as a young woman being thrust into increasingly unpleasant and awkward situations. Michelle Pfeiffer, honestly maybe the best thing about the movie, is a force of nature as a deeply unpleasant character that’s constantly cutting away at Lawrence’s character with passive-aggressive barbs, condescending looks and an attitude of barely veiled hostility. The direction in this first hour is also stellar; it really builds a map of the house in your mind and the sound design orients you, or disorients you, as to where you are in the house and where everyone else is as everyone moves around the space. The camera is uncomfortably close to Lawrence most of the time and constantly moving, jittering nervously as it focuses on her, whipping away in frightened jerks at other times. This all combines to create a really nerve-wracking, claustrophobic atmosphere that really, really worked for me.
But then the movie just goes progressively further and further off the rails and not, as I’ve heard many say, in a good way. Much has been made of how “immersive” that final hour is as things spiral out of control, but there’s a difference in immersive and unpleasantly loud and ugly and I think mother falls into the second category, not the first. At the height of its chaos, this movie is less artistic than its defenders think it is; it seems like nothing quite as much as the low-budget version of a Transformers action sequence. It’s chaotic, incomprehensible, ugly to look at, painfully loud . . . a lot of very fine movies build to a climax like this and they lose my interest entirely once they get this noisy and incomprehensible; but this movie doesn’t devolve into a morass of pyrotechnics and screaming and shouting at the climax – it devolves into this at the beginning of the final ACT and just never stops. Again, I understand intensity in film and I’ve seen movies with plenty of intensity, but these kinds of things have to be handled just right or else the intensity changes into boredom as you lose sight of any kind of character material.
And, by the way, mentioning characters brings me to a point that I want to bring up which is the discussion of how this movie has double meanings and symbolism and metaphors and, honestly, it doesn’t. This is maybe the most literal-minded movie of the year. There’s a way in which this movie could be made with metaphorical levels. At the end of this, entirely theoretical, movie, the audience member would muse about how Javier Bardem’s character is symbolically God or how he stands in for God or that the movie, as we often say, is really about God’s search for connection with humanity or something. But none of that is true here. Bardem’s character isn’t a metaphor for God; he isn’t symbolic of God; he simply, absolutely literally IS God. This isn’t, as some have said, a metaphorical journey through God’s creation process; it just IS that journey. It’s like if, midway through Platoon, it was revealed that Willem Dafoe was LITERALLY Jesus and Tom Berenger was LITERALLY Satan. Suddenly, the movie loses all depth; it becomes as shallow and superficial a movie as it could be. There’s a reason these stories are supposed to have double meanings and the reason art traffics in symbols; it’s because boiling symbols down until they just are exactly what they were originally supposed to symbolize makes things really obvious and kind of pointless. And it’s not easy to care about the “characters” once you realize that they aren’t exactly real. I’ve heard a lot of debate about who exactly Jennifer Lawrence’s character is supposed to be in this movie; I’m as clueless as anyone, but it’s pretty clear to me that she’s not actually a “character.” She’s a concept, an abstraction. Literally, I mean; she’s a kind of divine emanation, to borrow from Blake. As we discover at the end of the movie, she’s completely ephemeral; she doesn’t really exist outside of her conceptual, again, very literally conceptual, role in God’s plan – and it’s hard to feel sympathy for a conceptual abstraction – an act more than a person.
This was a movie that certainly took me on a journey; a journey toward being completely cold on it. As the second hour went wilder and wilder, the movie just kept slipping away from me: “Well, this isn’t great, but I did really love that first hour;” “Well, this is pretty terrible, but at least the first hour was good;” “Well, this has gotten so terrible that I don’t even give a **** about that first hour anymore;” “Who cares about hour one when we just crossed into hour TEN or at least it feels that way.” A little cooling off time has cooled my hostility somewhat and the memory of that excellent first hour has started to bring out positive feelings again. Still, this isn’t a movie that I would recommend to anyone and it’s not a movie worthy of much in the way of accolades beyond something like “it’s OK.” Any attempt to elevate it beyond that in terms of a general final assessment is absolutely foolhardy. A very particular kind of viewer will find things of interest; the average viewer will absolutely not. But, to the degree that Aronofsky shot for the moon, it’s about that much of a failure. The creepy genre piece is well-in his wheelhouse and he knocks it out of the park; the elevation to something more than that is where it goes wrong. If Aronofsky had a bit more of the performance artist in him, it would be satisfying to make the argument that he duplicated the story of the movie in the quality of the movie; like God, he manages at first, but as his ambitions get grander, things go horribly awry and, again like God, he ends up leaching every bit of love for him out of the viewer. But Aronofsky wouldn’t be that clever; he keeps his stories up on the screen. But I’ll give the lovers of this movie one of their points: this is a movie that only Aronofsky could have made. Thank God. There are points of interest and an absolutely admirable ambition, but Gospels are valuable in their rarity. Best not to propagate this one. 2 ½ stars.