God only knows

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - GLOBE LIFE & ARTS - RE­VIEWED BY BARRY HERTZ

With a di­rec­tor serv­ing as a de­ity, the film is a pro­foundly up­set­ting and fu­ri­ous apol­ogy for hu­man­ity’s orig­i­nal sin: ex­is­tence

In the be­gin­ning, so we’re told, God cre­ated the heav­ens and the earth. In the be­gin­ning of

Mother!, Dar­ren Aronof­sky cre­ates a heaven on earth.

Par­adise here is a mas­sive oc­tag­o­nal wooden home in the mid­dle of the coun­try­side, in­hab­ited by a name­less woman (Jen­nifer Lawrence), who has spent who knows how long spruc­ing it up, and her sim­i­larly anony­mous poet hus­band (Javier Bar­dem), who’s spent the same amount of time strug­gling with writer’s block. The two are in love – or so each of them pro­fesses – and their days are filled with leisurely meals, lazy wan­der­ings from room to room and furtive glances at the gi­ant, mys­te­ri­ous crys­tal the hus­band keeps in his study.

Un­til one day, when a stranger (Ed Har­ris) comes knock­ing at the door. He’s look­ing for help, and the hus­band takes a shine to him. The woman – she’s not quite sure of the man’s in­ten­tions. Soon enough, the stranger’s ar­rival is fol­lowed by that of his drunken, overtly sex­ual wife (Michelle Pfeif­fer). And then their two war­ring sons (Brian Glee­son and Domh­nall Glee­son) show up. And then – well, all hell breaks loose. In an ex­traor­di­nar­ily lit­eral sense.

And this is where Mother! ei­ther falls apart or opens up a chasm so wide that it threat­ens to swal­low the the­atre whole. Which is what hap­pens when a film­maker de­cides to play God – and make no mis­take, Mother! is Aronof­sky’s very own cre­ation myth, a pro­foundly up­set­ting and fu­ri­ous apol­ogy for what he con­sid­ers hu­man­ity’s orig­i­nal sin: ex­is­tence.

If that sounds grandiose, it is noth­ing com­pared with the gonzo ex­per­i­ment Aronof­sky has de­vised. Up to this point, the mar­ket­ing cam­paign for Mother! has been light on de­tails, heavy on at­mos­phere. Per­haps you’ve seen the trail­ers and as­sumed the film was a mod­ern spin on Rose­mary’s Baby or The Shin­ing – an eerie thriller cen­tred on a young woman whose bet­ter half suc­cumbs to some un­speak­able evil. That log line is true in a sense. But there is so much more to Mother! – and also so much less.

With­out wad­ing too deep into spoiler wa­ters, Mother! is a tale of what hap­pens when a cre­ative mind is given un­fet­tered power and de­stroys al­most ev­ery­thing in his (or His) wake. That in­dict­ment ap­plies to both Bar­dem’s char­ac­ter, who takes and takes from Lawrence’s put-upon wife with­out giv­ing her any­thing in re­turn, and Aronof­sky him­self, who mines a his­tory of genre tropes only to dis­man­tle ev­ery­thing cin­ema stands for. In 121 min­utes, the writer-di­rec­tor cre­ates a vi­sion that is equal parts hor­ror, satire, polemic and sheer abom­i­na­tion.

For those de­vout mem­bers of the Church of Aronof­sky – ba­si­cally, any­one who has stuck with the au­teur since catch­ing Re­quiem for a Dream on ca­ble when they were 14 and re­al­iz­ing that movies could be as scuzzy and danger­ous as the mind’s own lim­its – Mother! is a mas­ter­piece. A fren­zied plunge into Aronof­sky’s deep­est fears and hu­man­ity’s dark­est temp­ta­tions, it can be viewed as the lat­est es­ca­la­tion in the di­rec­tor’s bom­bas­tic aes­thetic, all chaos and car­nage.

For those who re­main skep­ti­cal of Aronof­sky’s pre­vi­ous ef­forts (even his most main­stream film, The Wrestler, is mired in dark­ness), Mother! will spark in­stant re­vul­sion, even charges of heresy. Here he goes again, screech­ing into the mega­phone like a grad stu­dent lead­ing his first march on in­sert-cor­rupt-in­sti­tu­tion-here. Aronof­sky is never one to whis­per, but he shouts so of­ten that he risks los­ing his voice en­tirely.

Yet, even those who find them­selves sit­ting be­tween these two camps are guar­an­teed to walk away from Mother! feel­ing … some­thing. Per­haps en­light­en­ment. Or out­rage. Or just a gen­eral sense of gob­s­macked dis­be­lief. By unit­ing the themes of his en­tire fil­mog­ra­phy – Pi’s ob­ses­sion with the se­crets of the Almighty, Black Swan’s fo­cus on the dam­age done to fe­male bod­ies for the sake of the male ego, Noah’s be­lief that God is a cruel and jeal­ous creator – and wrap­ping them in barbed-wire visu­als en­gi­neered to churn the most cyn­i­cal viewer’s stom­ach, the di­rec­tor has reached peak Aronof­sky.

Mother! is an un­par­al­leled achieve­ment, en­tirely un­prece­dented and un­ex­pected in this era of stu­dio film­mak­ing. How­ever Aronof­sky per­suaded Para­mount to fund this film and roll it out in wide re­lease is an act of God it­self, a true mod­ern mir­a­cle. By the time, about three­quar­ters in, that Lawrence’s char­ac­ter suf­fers an unimag­in­able be­trayal – fol­lowed, not one minute later, by an even more hor­ri­fy­ing twist of the knife – it is im­pos­si­ble to deny Aronof­sky’s sheer au­dac­ity, as well as the gall of those who funded such fear­less­ness.

The world is lucky to have Mother! I am lucky to have wit­nessed it. Lawrence and Bar­dem and Har­ris and Pfeif­fer are lucky to have worked on such a on­cein-a-life­time pro­ject. But I am also happy that I will never have to watch it again.

Although au­di­ences will be di­vided, Jen­nifer Lawrence and Javier Bar­dem can con­sider them­selves lucky for hav­ing worked on a once-in-a-life­time pro­ject.

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