‘Mother!’ dependent on audience interpretation

Photo courtesy of Protozoa Pictures

Many people reject independent and alternative films these days for being too “pretentious.” Sometimes, they are not wrong. Much of what the “pretentiousness” of a film hinges on is whether or not it claims to be something grander, deeper or more intellectual than it actually is. Is it just posturing, or is there some substance to back up the pretense?

This distinction is important because many alternative films are not that accessible to the casual viewer. Indie films are often too slow, quiet or even boring if there is not that spark of substance and meaning and profound connection with the audience that elevates a film from “pretentious” to “profound.”

Sometimes, as in the case with Darren Aronofsky’s newest film, “Mother!,” the distinction is not quite so clear. To be blunt, this is an understandably divisive movie. “Mother!” has received an F on CinemaScore (a site which aggregates audience responses to films) while being lauded by critics at various film festivals.

This polarizing response is largely due to how ambiguous this film is. The film is built off of each individual audience member’s interpretation and response to the film’s events, so there is no
right answer.

The film itself follows Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) as the wife of Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”), a writer who has not written for years. The two live together in a house isolated from society as Bardem struggles to write and Lawrence slavishly works to maintain the house.

Lawrence acts as the audience’s eyes, but she is largely passive throughout the first two acts as she is ignored and manipulated by her egotistical husband. Bardem’s character serves as an archetypal God figure, attracting visitors who journey to dote upon Bardem and his writings.

The volume of visitors to the house gradually increases as the film progresses, allegorically portraying chaotic, violent biblical events within Lawrence’s carefully maintained house. Bardem relishes the attention and, contrary to Lawrence’s meekly expressed wishes, brings the house to ruin as his never-ending stream of guests turn the home into a literal war zone.

Filmed primarily by following Lawrence in a perpetual bust shot as she navigates the chaos of her husband’s escapades, “Mother!” is designed to be psychologically disturbing and mostly succeeds. Regardless of how one interprets the central allegory of the film, the images and sensory stimulation that the film presents are legitimately uncomfortable.

Aronofsky opts to omit a soundtrack, leaving the house in a serene quiet when Lawrence is at home but mounting to an anxious, overbearing chatter as more guests enter the house. Even the lighting is largely dim, creating a claustrophobic, ominous mood as the film slowly escalates.

By the third act, the film reaches a fever pitch as guests engage in horrendous acts of brutality towards each other and their hosts. This nightmare scenario for Lawrence has a disconcertingly potent effect on the audience.

However, what makes the film so notable is its allegory. Lawrence’s character provides viewers a look at the muse and a counterpart to a biblical God figure. Bardem’s character is vain and egotistical and desperate for praise: in this characterization, Aronofsky draws parallels between a God and an artistic creator.

The film could easily be interpreted as tackling themes of religion, environmentalism, art, inspiration and feminism. Or it could be interpreted to be nothing but nonsense.

Aronofsky leaves the film vague intentionally, and a viewer’s experience relies on how well they buy into whichever allegorical narrative they like best.

Viewers should watch this movie without any expectations as to what everything means. Searching for a definite answer will almost certainly result in disappointment.

Unfortunately, there are times where the movie drags. Before Lawrence’s house turns into a madhouse, the allegorical narrative gets repetitive, constantly reinforcing the egotism and manipulative nature of Bardem without adding much more complexity to the plot.

While the visuals and soundtrack are functional and serve the film well, neither device is particularly memorable or adventurous. The movie is thrilling by the third act, but it often feels like Aronofsky has embroiled himself so deep into building his allegory that the emotional impact of his visuals and narrative loses much of its edge.

For viewers who are not completely engaged in the allegorical narrative by the third act, the violence and barbarity presented on screen can appear grossly gratuitous and unnecessary.

Nonetheless, “Mother!” is a daring film that is worth a watch even if its attempts at allegory may fall flat on some viewers. “Mother!” is playing at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and AMC Phipps Plaza.