If you went out to see “Mother” last weekend, I’m proud of you. If you remained seated until the end credits rolled, I’m proud of you. And if you didn’t immediately hop on social media afterwards to tell all your friends what a piece of trash it was, I’m very proud of you. “Mother” isn’t just a movie. It’s the kind of experience that any responsible theatre showing it should give out “I Survived” T-shirts for in the lobby.
I would’ve liked to have one after making it through a screening of director Darren Aronofsky’s anti-drug freak-out “Requiem For A Dream” when the Georgia Theater played it back in 2000. I left the balcony that night with a splitting headache but also a solid appreciation of what Aronofsky had managed to accomplish. No one — not even those of us familiar with the Hubert Selby Jr. novel upon which the film was based — was expecting to be leveled out by a movie that night. It was all we could do to hobble to The Grill and attempt to digest anything, let alone a milkshake.
Movies like “Requiem” and Aronofsky’s latest, “Mother,” are a tough sell. Horror movie fans — at least the ones who buy up the most tickets these days — have a set of expectations that are easily met by killer clowns, creepy dolls and haunted houses. They’re looking to jump in their seats, but not necessarily run for the exit doors the way my parents described the audience for “The Exorcist” doing back in the ‘70s. Thrill them, chill them and help them exit the ride safely before moving on to the next ride, but don’t ruin their plans for the rest of the night.
“Mother” begins with the image of a burning house and a woman’s face engulfed in flames before taking the viewer back in time to when the house was shiny and new, or at least getting there. Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games”) plays the central character, young wife to a celebrated poet (Javier Bardem, “No Country For Old Men”) suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. As he struggles to create, she works to restore their remote country estate to a white-walled paradise in hopes that it’ll be the answer to his problems. But when a wandering couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) mistake it for a bed & breakfast, he welcomes the strangers in against her wishes, setting the stage for the violent unraveling of their world.
It would be easy to see “Mother” in completely metaphorical terms, particularly when it becomes obvious early on that what we’re seeing on screen cannot possibly be reality, resulting in a first-person nightmare that is as unnerving as it is heart-pounding. If it’s true that fiction writers are essentially the gods of the world they create, Bardem’s character is God and Lawrence is Mother Earth, and we bear witness as man destroys what they have made. But thanks to the claustrophobic camera angles (the movie was made on classic 16mm film and is shot almost entirely in close-ups) and Lawrence’s breathlessly paranoid performance, it’s impossible to feel like an observer while “Mother” is playing. It all feels like an awful dream that keeps getting more and more disturbing, but Aronofsky’s not letting us wake up from it.
That’s when you realize what an accomplishment “Mother” truly is, as it reveals more about the way audiences prefer to be scared, and the kind of movie violence that excites rather than repulses them. Had the characters been pursued through the house by a horde of zombies, the film would go down a lot easier. There would be moments of tension followed by the release that a sudden jolt of loud music or an exploding head provides. These are the kind of safety nets that scary movies give us, and that “Mother” is completely uninterested in.
Where Aronofsky puts the viewer is a very unsafe place, what he is going to do to them is unpredictable and surreal, and the result is the kind of movie — love it or hate it — that you absolutely have to talk to someone about as soon as it’s over.