Jennifer Lawrence’s new horror movie “mother!” is not Jennifer Lawrence’s new horror movie — not in the slightest. It’s quite unfortunate that it has been marketed as such. Trailers show Lawrence wandering around a creepy house with strange visitors, and that’s the vibe many viewers are going to want. And they’re going to hate the movie.
The more eagle-eyed moviegoer may know to expect the unexpected from Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker of “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan” fame (and infamy). This is fitting, as following his latest film requires the eyes of an eagle and a mind firing on all cylinders.
It’s mind-boggling that a mainstream studio like Paramount has the guts to unleash “mother!.” They are undoubtedly going to receive backlash from the audiences expecting an easily digestible horror/thriller. But for those willing to see “mother!” for what it is — the challenging, complicated history of an allegorical world — rewards wait in abundance. “mother!” is a masterpiece destined to be misunderstood.
The movie’s technical prowess should be obvious to all. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who shot most of Aronofsky’s other films) suffuses “mother!” with an arthouse, reverse-found-footage style. The camera movements are deliberately disorienting, keeping the subject firmly in the frame no matter how it’s moving.
Oftentimes this subject is Grace [Jennifer Lawrence], generating a mystic momentum that emphasizes her autonomy within the setting. Even when she’s not the subject, there is nearly always something moving in the frame — always alive, ever forward, pushing the film’s universe towards an inevitable apocalypse of profundity. Averting your eyes feels like a sin.
The cinematography, editing, lighting, and lack of a score create a loaded spring, tightly wound and with the pinball of Aronofsky’s message resting on one end. Stretched across the movie’s runtime is the pinball table of Aronofsky’s allegory: each inactive light represents a deeper revelation. The trick with “mother!” is that it’s up to the viewer when to launch that pinball. This action occurs when the viewer first understands what story Aronofsky is using to frame the allegory.
Then the pinball careens around wildly, striking light after light — metaphor after metaphor — and bringing them to life, uncovering their meanings in a path that one can anticipate if they put in the effort to keep up. It’s as exhilarating as it is illuminating. A key line of dialogue unlocked the allegory for me about a third of the way through, and from that moment on, I was breathless as the full weight of the film’s meaning flooded over me. Many of Aronofsky’s ideas are controversial (or would be if they didn’t sail over heads), but that’s because they’re potent in their necessity for our current world.
The danger of such a film is the possibility of decoding the parable too late, or not at all. The former is more likely, as the symbols become clearer as “mother!” spirals onwards. But the earlier one gets a sense of Aronofsky’s direction, the richer the overall experience. In an attempt to facilitate this experience, here’s a hint: substantial knowledge of a certain religious text will help.
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem both give powerhouse performances: they’re impressive due to complete submission to the film’s mission. Familiar faces appear throughout — including surprises like Kristen Wiig — and they all do a great job of spinning the movie’s gears. Humanity is a writhing, violent thing in this tale, and every actor involved seems to share that sense. The pristine set design accentuates this feeling by comparison, which matters in more ways than one.
Saying any more about “mother!” could spoil the wonders and terrors bursting from its seams. This film is one of the greatest stories ever told, chopped up and turned against itself. What’s old has been retold and made bewilderingly effective again.
★★★★★ (5 out of 5)!