Sunday, 24 September 2017

mother! Review

That's not a typo, the title isn't supposed to be capitalised. Okay?


Shock and awe...
2017 has really screwed with me. Back during EIFF, I called Killing Ground ‘the most disturbing piece of cinema to be committed to celluloid in 2017’. It was uncompromising, distressing, and bleak. When Hounds of Love came along, I changed my mind. It was even more uncompromising, even more distressing, and, what’s more, it was largely true. Now, 2017 has brought us mother!. It is, without a doubt, the most disturbing piece of cinema to be committed to celluloid in 2017 – and I can guarantee nothing will beat it. I say this with little trepidation, because it’s the most disturbing piece of cinema ever to cross my path.

mother! works best if you don’t know what’s coming, so I’ll only set out a skeleton of the conceit. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together as an unnamed couple in a remote house. One night, a mysterious doctor appears at their door, thinking it to be a guesthouse, and setting off a chain of events that ramps in extremity until the very end. To know anything more than this going into the film would spoil a lot of the fun that comes from being taken aback at the sheer insanity on show here, so I’m gonna hold off. In fact, going one step further, I suggest you don’t even read this review: see mother! then come back to it – honestly. That said, I’m not gonna be dropping any spoilers, so it’s safe to continue if you wish.

Genuine fear...
Aronofsky’s picture is a cleverly constructed analogy, in that we’re kept in the dark about what it’s an analogy for until at least the half way mark. Eagle-eyed viewers could figure it out before then, but the majority may not realise until the credits roll (where you’ll find the answers you’re looking for). It’s a risky move, but one that pays off upon further reflection – mother! doesn’t add anything to any debates or tales, but the retelling and vicious purpose of the whole affair is seriously impressive to behold. This conceit allows Aronofsky to get away with a seemingly endless array of trickery and mayhem that’s calculated to get under the skin of the audience and engineer extreme discomfort. It’s a perfect escalation of the same paranoid themes that he’s been invariably working on since Pi, which makes one wonder: where next?

The first thing that hits you about the movie, and it hits like a damn sledgehammer, is its unpredictability. Because the story being told isn’t exactly coherent until you figure out ‘what’s going on’, there’s a genuine feeling that anything could happen at any moment. Per the marketing, this is definitely a horror film (call it a psychological thriller if you wish), and the frights do come thick and fast. Instead of the stale, predictable atmosphere of, say, a Blumhouse movie, we get something organically terrifying and authentic – even through its own lens of artifice. When Jennifer Lawrence’s character bends down to reveal a sinister figure lurking behind her, the screams in the cinema are something more than carnival thrills: something more raw and real – a genuine expression of fear from an enraptured audience hurtling towards an earth-shattering denouement.

Spooky Shenanigans
But down to the reputation this thing seems to have acquired in the past few weeks. I like to feel I’ve seen it all in terms of ‘shocking’ film: The Human Centipede, A Serbian Film, Funny Games, Martyrs, Irreversible etc. etc. I can’t categorically say that some more sick, disgusting piece of work doesn’t exist out there that tops mother!. However, what I can say is that nothing I’ve seen before manages to reach the peaks of depravity that Aronofsky reaches in the final 30 minutes of his film. I’m not sure how to describe them, except to say that they’re crazy, hallucinogenic, and desperately paranoid. It’s also fair to say that the lions share of the budget went into making them – the filmmaking on show is truly incredible: a tour de force of timing, camera positioning, and some miraculous editing that makes the whole affair look seamless. In a nigh-on deserted screening, there were multiple walkouts.

But, you know what, I think the excess is justified. Given the two main things that are being talked about here, it’s essential to convey both absolute chaos and righteous anger. Even aside from metaphorical meanings, the sheer brutality of the situation represents a seismic expression of the power of cinema. This is well and truly edge of your seat filmmaking: love it or loathe it, it’s dangerous and thrilling; raw and unpredictable; and terrifyingly unhinged. I think you’d struggle to find anything that’s less boring, or less button-pushing, than this.

True terror...
There are no shortage of impressive performances to be seen here either. Lawrence, usually a wooden and unimpressive presence, manages to stumble and shriek her way across the set over two hours -  giving an emotional and distraught performance as someone in what could be the worst situation mentally conceivable. Javier Bardem is alternately sweet, sinister, and melancholy as a creative struggling to create. And the cast of supporting characters, including Ed Harris, Domhnall Gleeson, Kirsten Wiig, and Michelle Pfeiffer give their all in various strange, horrifying, and idiosyncratic roles that suit their characters perfectly (either complementing their screen reputation, or in casting 180 degrees against type).

Now, to that exclamation mark. To myself, it's how Aronofsky has earmarked his creation as something different from the status quo. It's not enough to simply say you watched 'mother', given the content within; it makes more sense to yell the word - excitement or fear, it's up to you. It's also a hallmark of a bizarre comedic streak in a humourless film. Don't get me wrong, the only time I laughed was during the titles, but others may find the extremist absurdity on show here to be darkly funny. 


Calm before the storm...
All in all, it’s a nigh on perfect film. The story is crazy and unique; it’s filmed and acted with the highest finesse and elegance; it’s paced to perfection; and it’s genuinely terrifying as a horror flick, as well as genuinely thrilling as a thriller pic. And therein lies the quandry. You’ve read this review, and you know very little of the plot. You know mother! is a superbly made, fantastically realised piece of work which is bold in every way. You know it takes immense creative and intellectual risks, and that all of them pay off in droves. You also know that, unless you have the stomach for it, this film could ruin your life for a while. Make of that what you will, but, personally, this is one of the best of the year.

mother! Gets 5 stars!

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