This week, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! arrives to cinemas around the country with a shriek (!), like a terrified newborn baby.
Despite being heralded by half of its audience as a masterpiece, much of the headlines surrounding the film have tended towards negativity: its debut to boos in Venice; Jennifer Lawrence’s broken rib, caused by hyperventilation during an intense shoot; and, most damning of all, the reports that Aronofsky and his lead (21 years his junior) struck up a relationship, and what that might say about the film.
These narratives could back up what the other side of the critical spectrum have said – that mother! is a hollow self-portrait, shrouded by a whole lot of thunder.
With all of this clogging the mind, it would be easy to feel cheated by the film. Sitting through two hours of heart-battering anxiety – the last thirty minutes are like a prolonged panic attack – just to indulge one man’s ego would be infuriating.
But, even if Aronofsky built mother! in his own image, writing the film off on this basis misses the mark, and does a great injustice to Jennifer Lawrence’s involvement in the collaborative process of film-making.
The film may be deeply self-centred, so concerned as it is with personal anxieties pushed to absolute limits – but it isn’t shallow. While not everyone will go along for the ride, there is a harrowing emotional journey at the heart of the film, and it’s the lead actress, rather than the creator, in the driving seat.
The bare premise goes like this: Lawrence’s unnamed protagonist lives in a beautiful, creaky house, secluded from society, with her artist husband (Javier Bardem). One night, there’s a knock on the door – it’s Ed Harris, a doctor who mistakes the house for a B&B. Lawrence’s husband welcomes this strange man into their home despite her protests, and, the next day, his wife shows up and she is given similar treatment.
From here, the film cascades – incredibly, with a sharp wit – through an array of domestic horrors, before the entire dam bursts towards the latter half of the second hour, giving way to something that feels like the realisation of pure dread, as every one of Lawrence’s anxieties become a reality.
It thrusts the superstar – who hasn’t shown us much of her dark side since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone – into relatively unknown territory, as the shrieking, vulnerable female lead of a film that at times slants towards horror. Her commitment is astounding – as evidenced by her war wounds accrued on set.
Many critics have honed in on the idea that Bardem’s troubled-but-revered artist is an incarnation of the director himself. Yet this still doesn’t take away from the central experience – an anxiety rollercoaster, the Jennifer Lawrence show.
The viewer is given a front row seat to her trauma, with the camera pressed right up in the actress’s face – 66 minutes of the two hour long film are spent here – as her deepest fears are realised. We feel every nervous twitch.
The same technique was applied extremely effectively in Laszlo Nemes’ harrowing holocaust film Son of Saul (trailer below), which was shot in the claustrophobic narrow screen ratio. In mother! the backdrop of Auschwitz is swapped for a more self-focused, psychologically grating fear – the idea of one’s home, and with it, all control, being taken from you.
The difference here is that where Nemes’ protagonist Saul is almost numb to his surroundings, Lawrence constantly wears her dread on her face. Whether it’s the realisation of unrequited love, the possibility of failing as a mother, or just one of a thousand different ways control can be taken away, her anxieties, and how she reacts to them coming true, are front and centre.
Inexplicably, the press rollout for the film has seen the endlessly charming Lawrence slink into the shadows, while Aronofsky steps into the spotlight to mansplain his creation – and it’s not helping his cause. Extensive production notes include a quote from the director, which reads like “mother! Themes For Dummies”, in which he isolates a number of worldwide problems that influenced him during the five days it took for this film to pour out of him like a pile of sticky black bilge.
They include the refugee crisis, global warming, world hunger. Sure, you can see parts of these things in the film, but where it excels most is in troubling our instinct for self-preservation, and tapping into that dread through the medium of one of the world’s greatest film stars.
There are few deeper, more complex fears than the loss of control. As the movie builds to its devastating climax, the scream she lets out will curdle your blood.
In short, my advice: let Lawrence’s hard-earned performance do the talking. Then come and tell me this movie is only about Aronofsky.
mother! arrives in UK cinemas on Friday 15th September