Film Review: A brash assault on the senses

A couple's relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their otherwise peaceful existence • 3/5

Hell at home: Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence lead the way in this cinematic maelstrom orchestrated by Darren Aronofsky
Hell at home: Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence lead the way in this cinematic maelstrom orchestrated by Darren Aronofsky

Following a run on the mainstream cinema circuit, Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic malestrom, Mother! is currently haunting the cinema at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta. Arguably one of the most contentious films to be screened around the mainstream cinema cycle this year, it tells the outwardly simple story of a poet (Javier Bardem) who lives in an isolated countryside cottage with his wife (Jennifer Lawrence). The poet (no proper names are given, a hint to Aronofsky’s desire to keep things as archetypal as possible) is struggling with writer’s block, and his wife is determined to turn their dilapidated home into a “paradise”. But when an aging and sickly doctor (Ed Harris) comes knocking, the woman’s best laid plans start to unravel at an alarming rate, and to an extent that challenges the very integrity of reality itself. 

This is a film best experienced as a dark fairy tale, with characters who are clearly just ‘types’ and with unexplained supernatural happenings cropping up just because the story demands them to. Which puts a lot of the onus on its players to deliver the best they can – with Lawrence being chief among them. 

It would be silly to only now point to Lawrence’s acting chops – that much was evident even before the Hunger Games saga plunged her into the global spotlight, thanks to her turn in Winter’s Bone (2010) – but the camera quite literally does not give her a break this time around... much like the imposing guests who insist on making her life a literal hell (there’s yet another point in Aronofsky’s favour: the way in which, for all of its spiralling, freewheeling craziness, the film is a perfect blend of form and content through and through). Managing to pull off virginial purity, maternal assertiveness and – latterly – sublime, cosmic rage, Lawrence more than pulls her weight in a film that requires her to do plenty of heavy-lifting.

Of course, at some point you’ll find yourself wondering what it all means. And here’s the thing. Aronofsky, not being the most subtle of filmmakers out there – his track record includes Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014) – actually lays on the symbolism pretty thick. In a lot of ways, this is a bog-standard Biblical allegory. There are some details that remain fully open to interpretation, and it’s to Aronofsky’s credit that they’re there. But this isn’t the kind of maddening mystery-world of a David Lynch, say. As with his previous films, Aronofsky remains a purveyor of a kind of ‘Hollywood-friendly’ arthouse experience: he is bold and risque in some ways, but hardly all that challenging once you scratch the surface.

Whichever perch of the critical scale you end up standing on when it comes to this fever dream of a movie, it would be tough to imagine how a filmmaker with a less technical chops than Aronofsky would have handled such a challenging aesthetic experience. Because, for all of its perfunctory dialogue and unapologetic approach to the rules of its world, the way it all proceeds requires an incredibly tight control over the proceedings. From the tightly-focused, roving close-ups – the majority of which follow Lawrence’s beleaguered protagonist – to the impeccable sound design that truly brings to life the “living house” trope that the film also borrows from, this is an immersive experience through and through, even taken independently from the screenplay (such as it is, and written as it was in a five-day burst of frenzied inspiration).

Equal parts technically flawless, genre mash-up and indulgent symphony of insanity, Darren Aronofsky’s brazen assault on the senses will certainly leave an impression by virtue of its mix of calculated dread and all-out, explosive chaos. Whether or not all of this amounts to much in the end is debatable – even if the writer-director constructs a world that’s stuffed to the brim with allegorical promise – but what isn’t up for debate is the pungent punch with which this wacky film lands. 


A final screening of Mother! Will take place at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on November 24 at 8:30pm