When people say the metaphor is obvious in MOTHER!, did they mean to say it was obvious there was a metaphor in MOTHER!? Because I can definitely agree with the latter observation. MOTHER! is definitely making a point about something but what that point may be, I’m going to leave to our nation’s greatest minds to decipher. Like the guy in ROOM 237 who insisted Barry Nelson has a boner when he shakes Jack Nicholson’s hand in THE SHINING or that dude who just wanted to make sure I’ve earned the right to wear a RICK & MORTY t-shirt and that I’m not wearing it for the wrong purposes (it turns out that I didn’t). There is a message in MOTHER! but that message is conveyed with all the grace of someone whose idea of charades is to give you the finger with one hand while making that “c’mon, c’mon” gesture with the other. Interpretations as varied as nuclear catastrophe, a stealth biblical history and even the perils of fame were used by various critics and observers to explain away the strange nuances of MOTHER!. But much like the films of David Lynch or even Louis Malle’s BLACK MOON, MOTHER! is far more enjoyable if its surreal structure and imagery is taken at face value. Granted, this can be difficult considering that unlike Lynch or Malle, Darren Aronofsky’s dreamy, pointed images drip with so much purpose you can’t sit back and enjoy the sight of an angry mob accidentally breaking the neck of the dancing, Ooga-Chocka baby from ALLY McBEAL (was the CGI purposefully that bad in order to neuter the queasy impact of that scene?) without thinking it has something to do with the goddamned Giving Tree or something. In fact, you’ll never be able to separate the images from their perceived meaning because MOTHER! is nothing more than an object lesson. Luckily, it’s also an object lesson whose point is so muddled and opaque you’ll never really be certain what any of it means (unless you listen to Aronofsky’s interpretation, which, we will get to in a moment). Sure, you’ll have a theory of what the moral of the story may be, but then Kristen Wiig will suddenly appear on screen, shoot several prone bodies in the head before succumbing to an explosion and you’ll start to wonder if you should even care.
Speaking of Kirsten Wiig, is MOTHER! supposed to be a comedy? Because I was laughing pretty consistently throughout its two hour running time. To start with, an exclamation point is present in the title. That’s usually a film’s way of letting you know that a romp is waiting just ahead so you better fasten your laughing belts because this is going to be one hilarious ride (Notice to any publicist or P.R. person who may be reading this review: Please make this the pull quote)! Additionally, MOTHER! feels like a gritty, almost pretentious reboot of WHAT ABOUT BOB?, MADHOUSE and other basic cable mainstays from the '90s about unwanted houseguests. Basically, Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed character is the Dr. Leo Marvin of the film. An uptight voice of reason whose frequent pleas to be left alone are ignored by her oblivious, unnamed spouse -- Javier Bardem -- who functions as this film’s equivalent to Fay Marvin. The Bob Wiley in MOTHER! is everybody who strolls into and quickly plants their ass in the sprawling Lawrence/Bardem estate. There’s Ed Harris as a strange old man who carries around a black-and-white snap-shot of Bardem (whose character is apparently a popular, high-profile poet. Which is probably the most unbelievable element found in MOTHER!) that looks like some highly goofy amalgam of an author’s photo, a high school yearbook portrait and a novelty Olde Tyme photograph from an amusement park. There’s Harris’ wife Michelle Pfeiffer, who drunkenly insults Lawrence, throws Lawrence’s wet laundry on the ground of her cellar for no explained reason and casually fucks an enfeebled, dying Harris in the middle of the day in the couple’s living room. There’s even Harris and Pfeiffer’s horrible sons who show up to the house uninvited just to beat each other to death over the contents of their dying father’s will in front of everybody. These guests, as well as the many guests that show up throughout MOTHER!, are all depicted as unstable, self-centered monsters and yet they all manage to delight Bardem even though many of them wander into their house and piss on the floor shortly before sitting on the couple’s kitchen sink until it comes crashing to the ground. Further strengthening the WHAT ABOUT BOB? connection is the fact that both films are about high-strung rich people learning about the joys/horrors of life through free-spirited poor people, both delight in putting its tightly wound leads through a series of unending humiliations and both end with the destruction of an ornate summer home. The only real difference is that MOTHER! is far more nihilistic and absurd. The reassuring face of Bill Murray is not on hand to remind us that everything is going to be ok. Instead, people are going to come into your house, kill your baby and then paint the walls of your living room in a misguided attempt at repentance. Sure it’s dark, but if you’re not laughing at that, you’re just not laughing.
Apart from being funny there is, as I noted earlier, a message. As indecipherable as the movie can be, it’s still hard not to draw your own conclusions. Maybe you were like me and assumed that MOTHER! was a feminist treatise. Maybe you thought Lawrence’s cipher-like performance and her frequent claustrophobic close-ups were Aronofsky’s way of uncomfortably placing the viewer in Lawrence’s shoes, a means to experience the constant aggravations, threats and indignities she faces on an hourly basis. Perhaps because Lawrence can’t have a single interaction without another character ignoring or treating her with a combination of hostility and condescension, you assumed MOTHER! was addressing the difficulties women face in the workplace or the world at large. Conceivably, you may have gathered that the third act about the warring cult-like factions that take over Bardem and Lawrence’s home is noting how organized religion alternately demonizes and marginalizes women. Mayhap you were struck by Bardem’s character, an unctuous cad who is never impressed by her accomplishments, finds himself marrying increasingly younger women, is described by Lawrence as someone who only “loves the way [Lawrence] loves him” and most tellingly, rips Lawrence’s heart out in the finale. And I mean that literally. If that was your interpretation, let me be the first to give you enthusiastic thumbs up, kiss you gently on the forehead and then whisper softly in your ear, “’Try again, you dunce. You fucking dunce.” Surprise! MOTHER! has nothing to do with anything I mentioned above. According to Aronofsky, MOTHER! is actually about climate change. Lawrence is an embattled Mother Earth protecting her home from careless outsiders, Bardem is a vain, self-involved God, while Harris, Pfeiffer, Wiig and the rest are supposed to be you and me: petty, self-destructive idiots stomping around on our giant carbon footprints, stinking everything up with our Burger King farts. Knowing this particular factoid ruins MOTHER!. Significantly. It not only removes the mystery behind the film, the clumsy allegory cheapens MOTHER! and places it alongside the same shame-based, hard sell approach to environmentalism as CAPTAIN PLANET and films like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. Realizing this is akin to the realization that every movie Brad Bird directed at Pixar was actually the same “Highlights for Children” spin on The Fountainhead. It’s so disappointing. Additionally, the environmental theme doesn’t clear up many of the film’s elements. It doesn’t explain what that yellow Alka-Seltzer-like substance is that Lawrence keeps taking every time she gets stressed out. It never really makes it clear what earth is supposed to represent (Is earth supposed to be Lawrence’s house? Or her baby? Both? Lawrence herself?). Nor does it explain what that third act hot take on religious fanaticism has to do with climate change or why religion has to play a role in this. If Aronofsky is going to wallow in loaded GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER level preachiness, why couldn’t Bardem’s character symbolize corporate greed or political non-action? Why is God getting dragged into this? I wish I could go back to those heady moments when I thought Aronofsky was telling me to stop being mean to ladies and that terrorism is bad.
And yet, even though Aronofsky ruined the experience of his own movie for me, I still can’t hate something this strange and upsetting. The kind of strange and upsetting you could only get on a twelfth generation VHS bootleg of an unsubtitled print of some Japanese movie from the '70s where yakuza members are murdering each other in a Technicolor chicken coop (more people need to see Hideo Gosha’s VIOLENT STREETS). MOTHER! somehow manages to out-weird Aronofsky’s NOAH and that had a rock monster with the voice of Nick Nolte and Ray Winstone as a guy who bit the heads off of lizards and carried a flaming sword. It’s also, thanks to DP Matthew Libatique, a beautifully shot movie with affecting performances. And considering the Rorschach Test qualities of MOTHER!, nobody will experience the film in the same way. You might be amused, enraged or horrified, but you’ll never be bored. MOTHER! is a flawed film. It’s a self-indulgent film. More to the point, it’s probably not a good film. It is however, the most unforgettable film you will ever experience and isn’t that what really matters?