“They understand it, but it affects them in different ways,” says Javier Bardem’s adored, renowned poet of his crowds of sycophants in writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER! This is a glaring clue that what you’re watching isn’t meant to be viewed in any sort of superficial manner. No, it’s much deeper and complex. While this line holds all the subtlety of an anvil dropping, it doubles as the guiding light for viewers to interpret the auteur’s arty aims. Narrative themes, theoretical concepts, characters and motifs (both visual and auditory) are internalized on different fragile glass planes, occasionally smashing into one another. It’s an exemplary, psychological horror, whose nihilism is two sides of the same coin – obvious and nuanced, frightening and darkly funny, hopeful and pessimistic. The allegorical connotations beg for viewers to deconstruct and make sense out of this cinematic Mobius strip.
The advertising has probably swayed you into thinking you’re seeing a spin on ROSEMARY’S BABY. It’s not that at all, though Polanski-inspired paranoia is an ingredient in the plot’s broth. The portrait Aronofsky paints, as one of my colleagues pointed out, is more akin to comedies MADHOUSE and THE MONEY PIT. But the slugline of “harsh realities hitting the perfect couple” has its fingers in the psychological thriller genre (The Shining, PACIFIC HEIGHTS, etc.). In Aronofsky’s iteration, the perfect couple (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Bardem), who go without names, have almost completed a remodel on their home – the proverbial “a place in the country away from civilization.” She’s deeply in tune with the home’s heartbeat whilst he’s stuck searching for creative inspiration. However, things change when a Man (Ed Harris) comes a-knockin’… and then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up… and soon thereafter their two rude, obnoxious sons (played by real life brothers Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson, on what they’d call a “Tuesday” in their home) chaotically barge in… and so on and so on. Foundations (metaphorical and physical) crumble as the young wife tries to make sense of it all – and no one listens.
The real star of MOTHER! isn’t necessarily any of the actors, but rather the careful, restrained sound design relating to our heroine’s psyche. Though this is largely without a score, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson finds a concerto within the sonic landscape. The sound of insects quietly hidden far in the background are there to subtly unnerve. They fade up occasionally when there’s a connection to be made. The furnace clicking on adds a slight punctuation to her fear. There’s also a literal heartbeat to the home she uncovers. The doors have a weighty tone as she shuts them. The home creaks and pops as it settles, unsettling the audience. The doorbell chimes are magnificently sour, playing into her consistent annoyance at the interlopers’ disruptions. There’s a metallic, metronomic sound in her husband’s study that’s both comforting and disquieting.
Outside of the foley, there are other ways Aronofsky and Jóhannsson brilliantly build out the sonic canvas. Conversations between the characters go from an insular, compacted center-channel sound, expanding to multi-channeled stereo – particularly noticeable during her intrusive talk with the doctor’s wife about why they don’t have kids. There’s a distinct sense of location when we’re in the house – which in and of itself is a metaphor for our protagonist’s mind. Sounds of movement upstairs and downstairs are all-encompassing, heard behind and on the sides of the theater.
MOTHER! is a provocative parable on every level. It’s not really a horror movie per se – it’s more like it’s horrific what humanity has become. He does build in some genre tropes – like cell phones not working and a jump scare or two. However, Aronofsky has said he made this intending it to be an environmental allegory for “Mother Earth.” She gives you all she has until she is spent. She’s The Giving Tree. You’ll definitely see this reflected – especially in the deliciously wicked/ terrifyingly on-point pandemonium in the third act. He captures a societal breakdown in the most satisfyingly bonkers manner.
That said, there are a multitude of other things to shine a light on. Is this a narcissistic, masturbatory metaphor symbolizing a filmmaker and his “art?” Yes, but not insufferably so. There’s an ironic juxtaposition that develops as the filmmaker reads the riot act on fandom, and yet still craves for audiences to vibe with this sentiment. Religious and societal contexts can be extrapolated. Could “Mother” and “Him” be Adam and Eve? To a certain extent. “Him” is preoccupied with giving life so perhaps he’s at least put himself into a God-like role in the home. The two sons are most certainly Cain-and-Abel inspired. Is this a metaphor for the rise of feminism? Sure. As the modern portrait of a breezy, Eileen Fisher-clad traditional housewife (a perceived “trophy,” who self-medicates), no one listens to her soft-spoken needs. Later she’s physically brutalized after finding her agency, protesting against a cannibalistic mob hell-bent on destruction of wisdom and beauty. Aronofsky really lights this whole thing on fire – so you better be ready to roast the marshmallows on these flames.
MOTHER! is now playing.