mother! – the new film from Darren Aronofsky, starring Jennifer Lawrence – is actually worth watching. That, already, makes it a major achievement – by and large, movies suck. What’s more, it even manages to be pretty damn unique. Its basic strategy is twofold:
One: keep the camera max ten inches from Jennifer Lawrence’s face. Capitalize on the fact that the audience is just as confused and upset as Lawrence is. In other words, feed the audience their own experience of watching this movie in the form of the star’s omnipresent performance.
Two: take the house-as-planet-Earth metaphor and play it out as literally as possible. Mismatches between what a house is literally like and what life on planet Earth is literally like will arise. Allow these mismatches to develop their own absurd logic and allow that logic to run the film’s dramatic engine.
The result is, again, a surprisingly unique movie. I’ve never seen another movie like it – I don’t get to say that often. It’s also interesting enough to get me to write this post, which is more than a movie has compelled me to do in years.
Now, however much I may appreciate the film’s uniqueness, I do want to air three complaints:
One: Darren Aronofsky’s formula really does come down to shock value. I haven’t seen Noah, and I don’t remember The Wrestler or The Fountain. But if you think to Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and now this, they’re unified by the same basic rhythmic structure: an accelerating build to a viscerally shocking montage. Aronofsky can wrap it up in all the top-notch craft and Important Themes in the world, but the payoff is always the same. He really just wants to emotionally violate you.
Two: Why do people think that a circular plot is necessarily profound? Aronofsky frames the entire action of the film as a single iteration in an endless loop. Why? What does he suppose that adds? The notion of Eternal Return can, of course, be ripe with thematic juice – I’ve played with it in my own work, so I’m certainly not categorically shooting it down. But you have to squeeze that juice. Just dropping in the simple fact of, whoa, the end was the beginning! – that adds nothing, and feels desperate and cheap.
(For a masterful use of Eternal Return as plot structure, see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – it’s the loop that catapults that film to greatness, though on a first watch, that aspect of the structure barely even registers.)
Three: And, of course, the violence against women on-screen issue. I used to have arguments for why violence against women on-screen should be avoided unless there’s a good reason. I no longer buy into those arguments. However, even without the arguments, I still have the preference. If you’re gonna show me incredibly difficult to watch footage of Jennifer Lawrence being horribly and graphically physically abused, I’m gonna want thematic (or at least dramatic) justification. And no, “this is what we’re all doing to Mother Earth!” doesn’t qualify.