oh, brother!

Darren Aronofsky's artsy, surreal psychodrama mother! thinks it's an allegory about the exploitation of women, but it's exploitation itself

click to enlarge Jennifer Lawrence is the title character is Darren Aronofsky's latest.
Jennifer Lawrence is the title character is Darren Aronofsky's latest.

I cannot recall the last time a film made me as angry as Darren Aronofsky's mother! has.

Maybe never.

As mother! unfurled over its two-hour runtime, I found myself actually clenching my jaw with ever-increasing fury as Aronofsky's head wended its way further and further up his own cinematic ass. This is a filmmaker for whom mysticism and trippiness have been essential components of his work since his feature debut, 1998's Pi. But never before has the uncomfortable ugliness he was exploring landed with such repulsive pointlessness. Aronofsky is intent on presenting to us, in faux-metaphysical trappings, a "truth" he seems to believe is secret and cryptic. In reality, it is utterly banal and inarguable.

mother! is not an allegory, and it is not metaphorical, though I'm sure Aronofsky, as writer and director, would say it is. Nothing here makes a damn lick of sense except as the literal sequence of events that plods across the screen, and the "characters" are nothing more than cardboard stand-ups representing themselves. No one has a name, but the credits refer to Jennifer Lawrence's character as "Mother," even though she does not become a mother until halfway through the film.

Mother has no existence outside the huge, rambling mansion in the middle of nowhere where she lives with her husband (Javier Bardem). He does have an external existence: He is not "Father," but "Him." He is able to leave the house — she never does — and he is a writer, a poet, someone with work that bears no connection to her, beyond how, of course, she serves as his muse and his "inspiration." She literally does nothing but serve him: She is renovating the house, which burned down before they met. She wants to "make a paradise" for him. She has no other desire.

But paradise is invaded. One of Him's stalkerish fans, known only as Man (Ed Harris), stops by for a visit, and he won't leave. Later, Man's wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), arrives and makes herself obnoxiously at home. Woman is also pretty much defined solely as a mother, to adult sons (played by real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson). If that mention of "paradise" was a tip-off, the Cain-and-Abel dynamic between the adult sons cements it: Aronofsky is going to wallow in a tortured literalism not only about literary creation but capital-C Creation, though only from a narrow, abhorrently misogynistic perspective: Men create, and women suffer for men's art and religion.

In Aronofsky's eye here, there is no vision or imagination that comes from the mind of a woman. Mother dresses in drab grays, and she's painting Him's house in the same non-colors. The creativity of men, however — wow! It is chaotic and violent, even apocalyptic. It's an excitement that Him craves, and encourages, and too bad if Mother will become a victim of it.

Mother exists for no purpose other than to have abuse heaped upon her, and so that she may be venerated by Him for it. The most generous interpretation of Aronofsky's intent here is that he wants to condemn the reduction of women to dehumanized objects and brutalized symbols, in both the overarching mythology of our culture and the prosaic daily operations of Big Entertainment. Aronofsky may even believe he is sympathetic to Mother: The entire film is seen through her eyes, and intimate handheld shots give us her sickened perspective on events that are menacing her.

But it's the same hatred for women masquerading as feminism that a slasher flick engages in, sexualizing a final girl's terror for the titillation of the audience. You don't counter the awful crap that gets piled on women by our culture, high or low, by piling on more of the same awful crap.

If mother! really wanted to decry the way women are abused and men are deified, it wouldn't merely slather an arty veneer on more of the same-old, same-old.♦

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