Be very afraid of this ferocious Aronofsky nightmare

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens September 15, wide
4.5 out of 5

Whenever the notion of “religious movie” comes up, the first thing that comes to mind are well-meaning Christian flicks like The Shack or the God’s Not Dead saga (are you ready for the GND cinematic universe?) Cinephiles would bring up Martin Scorsese’s Silence or Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Few, however, would mention Darren Aronofsky, even though the director of Noah and The Fountain is better at tackling our complicated relation with the Creator than most of cinema’s elder statesmen.

Mother! is one nasty piece of film. It uses Jennifer Lawrence’s box office draw to tear organized religion a new butthole and absolutely savages mankind’s spectacularly irresponsible treatment of nature.

All this, without ever leaving a rickety old house in the middle of the country.

J-Law is the title’s mother, even though she doesn’t have any children of her own. She spends her days repairing the fixer-upper while her husband (Javier Bardem) attempts to write a follow-up to a successful poetry book. In spite of Bardem’s bad case of writer’s block, they enjoy a peaceful existence.

It all comes crashing down with the arrival of a stranger (Ed Harris). The husband — who craves new stories for inspiration purposes — eagerly invites him to stay, in spite of his wife’s misgivings. Soon the stranger’s wife (a lively Michelle Pfeiffer) joins him, then their sons, followed by others. Eventually, the home the mother so lovely restored is overrun by hooligans with no respect for her property. More disturbingly, her husband tries to excuse their behaviour.

As allegories go, this one is at another level. You may have noticed I didn’t use the characters’ names to describe the plot. They don’t have names. Jennifer Lawrence is warm and tender, gives a lot of leeway, but if pushed too hard becomes a force to reckon with. It’s not immediately clear who Bardem is supposed to be (there’s a right answer, revealed only at the end), but the veneration he triggers among his fans represents a very negative view of organized religion.

Mother! also has an absurdist sense of humour — for example, one usually funny actor uses her familiar screen persona for evil and it’s VERY unsettling.

Mother!’s last third is so intense it’s hard to watch. The filmmaker’s most frequent collaborator, cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Pi, Black Swan) conjures nightmarish sequences. There are a couple I’d like to scrub off my brain, where they’re engraved alongside  A Serbian Film.

Mother! also works as a horror flick (the idea of a partner who doesn’t have your back is always a good source of material), but to think of it as merely a genre film is missing the point.

There is a relentless pessimism to the film rooted in the incompatibility of nature and man (the abstract equivalent of an abusive relationship). Mother! is Semiotics 101, but the didactic nature of the enterprise doesn’t diminish its power. ❧