Let’s face it: Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is not the best nor the worst movie of the year, or the decade, or of all of movie history. It’s an average piece of art from a filmmaker who, after making Noah in 2014, has used another narrative from the Bible, i.e. the Garden of Eden, mixed it with ecological concerns, and made a mildly interesting story out of it. The main problem I have with mother! is its lack of surprise for all of its two hours. Once you get that the Jennifer Lawrence character is some kind of Eve and ecological earth mother whose universe is the house she lives in, the rest sort of falls into place. The movie has only three kinds of scenes: Lawrence’s point of view, Lawrence in the frame, or shots over her shoulder. It’s the earth mother’s story and how her realm gets invaded by careless, selfish humans. She has built that house herself and will never leave it – the porch is as far as she will go. She can feel the house’s beating heart getting poisoned by unwanted intruders. The invasion is gradual, but unstoppable, and you know well before the end that we will be back at the beginning, where the house is in flames, with the earth mother dying in it, and her husband placing a diamond on its little altar so that the house can heal again. And so on.
The intruders see themselves as guests who have every right to be there, and they are well-cast. It was definitely good to see Michelle Pfeiffer again, and the same is true for Ed Harris. They are husband and wife, and while they try to be polite, they cross boundaries: Harris smokes in the house, and Pfeiffer asks inappropriate questions about Lawrence’s wish to have babies. They break that precious crystal and have sex later, not caring if Lawrence finds them while they are at it. (Forgive me if I equate the role with the actor, but none of the characters have proper names, although when the Domhnall Gleeson character kills his younger brother, played by Gleeson’s younger real-life brother Brian Gleeson, it’s impossible not to think of Cain slaying Abel.)
And then there is the husband, played by Javier Bardem. He is a writer, but unable to write until he sleeps with his wife, and then he writes a long poem in a frenzy, and gets it published, which will indirectly lead to the house’s downfall: fans arrive, reporters, his agent (Kirsten Wiig, of all people), and there is a party, and things go wrong. People break glasses and windows and sinks, more people arrive and tear down walls, they turn into religious factions, into militant groups or sects; there is rape, murder and cannibalism. The Lawrence character rightly fears for her home. Those scenes reminded me more and more of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise from last year, a movie that is much worse than this one here, because mother! may be an allegorical one-trick pony, but at least it has some faint structure to it.
For all of mother!‘s formulaic predestined ending, Jennifer Lawrence is more than up to the task of being the center of the movie, although her character is always on the sidelines, observing, warning, despairing or repairing. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are wonderfully intrusive, but they fade into the background later when the wild hordes take over. That is the main problem with allegorical material: it often ends up where you think it will, so the teller has to make the path the story takes that much more interesting. I wonder why Aronofsky felt the need to go back to religious material; he finds the right images, but there must be screenplays and script ideas that could bring his gifts much more to the fore than mother!