Prophecy, Pollution, & Pretention: A Review of Mother!

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Credit: Peter Mackie

Adam Nicholson
Deputy Culture Editor – Film

My nature, being a trifle romantic and tinged with a little pragmatism, meant that my encounter with a $30 million art film was inevitably going to be a curious one. Truly, I applaud the daring, but can’t help being conscious of the looming financial disaster that is trying to sell a film like Mother! to mass audiences. Dissecting the beast is another, stranger matter altogether: outwardly, its physiognomy is so interesting and unique that the surprise is even greater when no organs, no entrails are to be found within.

Mother! is the product of two overwrought metaphors forced into a single vessel by a man who thinks himself a prophet, but who finds himself a mere apostle, forever following in the footsteps of better filmmakers. The film’s intellectual amalgamation of myth, metaphor, and allegory, housed within two hours, seems to let substance dissipate and only gesturing remain.

Naturally, I begin where all film criticism must: an appraisal of the parts, before an assessment of the whole. The performances are wonderful. Javier Bardem, in particular, achieves a feat of some kind: imbuing abstraction with nuance and feeling. Jennifer Lawrence remains sympathetic throughout, if maddeningly restricted by the script.

A note on its technical merits – the claustrophobic cinematography and intelligent sound design are commendable. However, CGI needn’t be used for such images as a house burning down – generated fire will never have the primal power of actual flame and, likewise, the overabundance of generated images in lieu of tactile and practical effects detaches the viewer from the moment, robbing key scenes of their potential effect.

So, it seems Mother! is technically, in the most literal sense, a good film, boasting fine performances, considered cinematography, and intelligent use of most production elements, if being a little overzealous with CGI. The problems of Mother! lie, therefore, not in the execution, but in the conception.

Doubtless, Aronofsky imagines the two allegories – Mother Earth/Virgin Mary, climate change/religion – to be perfectly suited for one another. Aronofsky, however, is a poor matchmaker. In so many regards, Mother! is like a strange “Black Mass”: an often absorbing, ritualistic, and occasionally distressingly literal retelling of the Biblical Canon from Eden to the Apocalypse. However, and somewhat ironically, Aronofsky has polluted this vision with another allegory, one of mankind wilfully inviting the destruction of a loving Mother Earth. As two separate films, the ideas could flourish. In fact, had the film a stronger basis in the relationships between the characters, it might have pulled off the fusion. Played out concurrently and without depth of character, however, the allegories end up destroying each other. The mixing of metaphors robs Mother! of a purity of vision and therefore robs it of power and profundity.

Is Mother! about religion or climate change, then? The answer is both, and subsequently neither. All the problems with this film stem from this false start, the allegories strangling each other in utero. The result is a stillborn film – its potential is evident and, of course, lost.

For instance, in the film’s latter half, the Poet’s (Javier Bardem) fame brings a crowd of followers. The film traces the situation’s descent into hysteria magnificently. The infernal qualities of this sequence are exquisite. I found myself, finally, arrested by the picture. The climax of this sequence is a literal depiction of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In Mother!, Jennifer Lawrence’s baby is carried overhead and passed between her husband’s followers until its neck snaps. She rushes to the altar where she is confronted and told by a priest that the baby lives on, that the sacrifice had worth, the people are sorrowful for their actions and repent. She moves the priest aside. The torn carcass and entrails of her child are on the altar, the followers chew the pieces. It is sublimely horrific. And then, just as the film has powerfully conveyed horror, it is ruined.

Because, of course, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the Virgin Mary: she’s Mother Earth. She’s both. She’s neither. By the end, she’s not even J-Law (courtesy of some awful CGI). Had the film committed to one subject, such moments of absolute horror would be consistent and cumulatively more powerful, building in succession. Instead, such moments as have been described become parodies of profundity, pseudo-intellectual pretension. Aronofsky’s dialogue and his whole script in fact lack conviction. Every line seems a placeholder. Silences are empty, rather than pregnant.

Ultimately, one leaves Mother! neither predisposed to its environmental or religious messages, principally because it isn’t clear what the film’s stance is on either. I can’t say I disliked Mother!. Truly, it was thought-provoking – I’ve thought about it a lot. But I cannot say it succeeded in its intent, because I do not know what it intended to do. In the end, it was almost a horror film. Almost.