A sort of stunned silence befell the audience at last night’s screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, broken, eventually, by the nervous chatter that bubbles up, like the reflux of shock, in the immediate aftermath of an unusually traumatic event. My jaw was slackened. The hood of the sweatshirt I was wearing had been reflexively pulled over my head. I made some utterances to myself I’d never made in a movie theater before, or in general, as I’m not in the habit of making utterances to myself. Suffice it to say, the previous 60 minutes or so were some of the most profoundly disturbing and strangely invigorating I’d ever spent in front of a screen.
As someone who attempts to think and write critically and objectively about movies, Aronofsky presents a particular challenge. I remember watching Requiem for a Dream in a friend’s college dorm room, and having to wade through the nightmarish shroud of feelings clouding my brain before I could decide whether or not the movie, while terrifyingly visceral, was actually any good (that I was super stoned did not help matters). The same went for Black Swan, a much better movie, to be sure, but one that fucked with you enough psychologically as to make it nearly impossible to make a clear-headed judgment, at least for a while.
Those movies came out in a different time, of course. The “hot take” culture—of which I am, admittedly, a card-carrying member—has metastasized to an almost untenable degree, prioritizing the kind of knee-jerk reaction Twitter makes possible over any sort of considered response. Everybody has an opinion on everything; what’s more, everybody wants to share that opinion. Part of this is technological; another part, assuredly, is a byproduct of the Trump presidency, a world in which a modicum of indignation qualifies as the new normal.
Without giving too much away, Mother! stars Javier Bardem (a mysterious poet, known only as “Him”) and Jennifer Lawrence as a married couple, living in a house renovated by Lawrence’s character after a fire. The house exists in an Edenic setting, surrounded by woods on all sides. Their isolation is claustrophobic, especially when another married couple, played by Ed Harris and the deliciously mischievous, pursed-lipped Michelle Pfeiffer, show up at their door, evaginating the lives of its inhabitants. Mother! is a slow burn, suffused with a constant baseline level of anxiety (the sound is fantastic here), that ratchets up the horror with beats not dissimilar to a Portlandia sketch, which pushes, and pushes, and pushes, and pushes, until the concept, exhausted, collapses on itself. At times, this ridiculousness is almost comic. The conclusion is anything but. Lawrence, to her credit, delivers an awesome performance. Given what her character goes through, though, it is hard not to let the prospect of what she went through to deliver said performance color the performance itself.
The movie has elements of horror and suspense, certainly, but at its core it is an idea movie. It is biblical, both allegorically and dialectically; that is, it is biblical in the sense of both its story and the way it inspires any number of different readings. I am sure, in the coming days, that the Internet will come alive with arguments orbiting around what the movie is really about: the artist and his muse, the vampiric patriarchy, the insidious effects of celebrity (and celebrity culture), climate change. All of these themes are laid out quite blatantly, ripe for the critic's picking.
Aronofsky, in interviews, has said that he wants Mother! to spark conversation long after the movie is over. Indeed, it will. The director has a unique understanding of a culture that, drowning in politics, demands every person take a stance, quickly and aggressively, on subjects as important as immigration and unimportant as Taylor Swift. With a surfeit of easy positions to take, hot takes to have and possible arguments to be made for Mother!, the natural inclination would be to arm yourself with one—to react, in a state of emotional shock, anger, or whatever other emotion the movie inspires.
But we should proceed warily. Aronofsky, I think, is setting a meticulous trap. And by going with our gut, we are in danger of taking the bait.