mother! (2017): god help the girl (Part II)

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(This review contains SPOILERS. See the film and make up your own mind before reading.)

Lawrence may be front and center the entire film, but her character is a cipher. She’s not “strong” by virtue of her omnipresence, and she’s not strong because she shuffles through a literal-figurative war zone after her water breaks. The only agency granted her is that of a passive housewife stereotype, designed for doing dishes, massaging her husband’s wounded creativity, and serving as a vessel for childbirth.

But therein lies the rub – as it turns out, she’s not real, and her function as the writer’s muse is to have all manner of verbal and physical torment visited upon her! It’s a callous representation of womanhood, worsened by the way Aronofsky’s self-reflexive script all but aligns him with Bardem’s character.

The Great Reveal is the greater sham of mother!, as the climax posits Bardem – the creator – as Lawrence’s savior. That’s right – his “creativity,” which has subjected her to all manner of hell, is viewed as his greatest gift to this “character.” In turn, her greatest gift to him is a literal rending of her heart to provide the creative fuel for another story starring another hot muse, to (ostensibly) endure a similar trial-by-fire gauntlet as this arrogant guy tries once again to see his “vision” through.

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Jake Gyllenhaal sees red in Nocturnal Animals. Image source:

That’s why Lawrence is always in the dark, and the always-looming strangers treat her like some backwoods moron. In the early going, the disorienting effect of this is properly skin-crawling, as people with no filter (particularly Michelle Pfeiffer’s callous society drunk) level off-the-cuff personal attacks at Lawrence’s repressed demeanor.

But it’s the Male Savior mentality, as self-aware and scapegoat-ish as anything else here, that underlines mother!‘s most regressive elements. Aronofsky has created a film that posits the female as The Other – the source of all inspiration and frustration. Wouldn’t it be better if we could just chain J-Law and her ilk to the kitchen and give her a totally-had-it-coming, Straw Dogs-style rage-fuck on occasion?

There are films that address the creative process with great insight: mother!‘s closest corollary would be Charlie Kaufman’s ambitious Synecdoche, New York, an existential marvel of a movie (one whose images also burn themselves into the subconscious) in which a playwright begins work on an ambitious project that quickly consumes all aspects of his life. In that film, it’s the writer who’s left defenseless in a world spinning out of control.

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Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks. Image source:

Tom Ford’s Texas noir Nocturnal Animals shows the intersection between past, present, and fiction as an ice-cold gallery owner (Amy Adams) is given an advance copy of her ex-husband’s novel, a work fraught with hostility (particularly toward women) that hinges on vengeance, and how it manifests in the failures of the patriarchy (Jake Gyllenhaal’s upper-class father; Michael Shannon’s blue-collar cop).

The romantic fantasy Ruby Sparks benefits from a script by star Zoe Kazan, who at once perfectly inhabits the titular Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, but also recognizes the fully-formed femininity and negative stereotypes associated with that character type. Kazan’s script centers on a writer (Paul Dano) whose creation – for no reason – emerges out of the ether one day. Dano must confront his loneliness, selfishness, and misogyny as Ruby becomes his codependent obsession. His disconnect from reality is indicative of a self-love that outweighs his creation, something perfectly captured in a several-minute sequence where he looks on, horrified, as Ruby manifests every ridiculous sentence he types out. When she (by proxy) repeatedly calls him a “genius,” what resonates is the author realizing the toll of his ego, and the obligation to his creation.

These films explore the bandwidth of creativity, authorial responsibility, and misogyny without slouching into pre-emptive fail-safes. What you see is what you get. A mighty wind doesn’t send a meticulously-assembled house of cards flying out the window and into the night.

mother! creates madness that’s decadent and alluring with such confidence that its ultimate reveal comes off as a snickering reaction more grotesque than any of the macabre imagery on display. It’s Aronofsky’s deflection (at best) and dismissal (at worst) of worthy themes – trading substance for his brand of well-shot nihilism – that transforms the film into a self-indulgent exercise in frustration.

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 2 out of 5 stars