Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the Toronto International Film Festival.
The history of cinema is littered with movies that became infamous for pushing audiences beyond what they’re willing to accept. There’s an implied contract when someone buys tickets to a film — particularly one released by a major studio — that it’s going to fit within certain constraints in terms of intensity, imagery, or just general good taste. When films reach beyond that, the result can be pure outrage.
Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is the latest film to join that proud lineage.
It stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a married couple living in a old, restored house, and it was wrapped in complete secrecy until its recent premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. (It’s also playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, in advance of its September 15th release date.) Posters have invoked Rosemary’s Baby as a comparison, while trailers have made it look like everything from a haunted-house movie to a paranoid thriller. In a way, it’s all of those things and more: a surreal, feverish nightmare about relationships, the creative process, and the way men manipulate women and take them for granted. But Mother! is also a piece of taboo-breaking cinematic insanity, and the big question is whether it will make audiences too angry to understand its larger points.
At its core, this is a psychological horror film. The Rosemary’s Baby comparisons are apt not so much in plot as they are in tone and thematic subject matter. It’s scary, it’s weird, it’s funny at times — and it’s also downright stomach-turning.
Jennifer Lawrence’s character — credited only as “Mother” — is the wife of an aging poet struggling with writer’s block (Javier Bardem, credited as “Him”). They live in an old house that she’s carefully restored, while he spends his time trying to turn out a new piece of work after a years-ago success. When an older gentlemen played by Ed Harris (he’s just “The Man”) shows up, Bardem’s character is charmed, in no small part because The Man is a huge fan, and wants to meet his favorite poet before he dies.
Bardem’s character invites him to stay in their home, against Lawrence’s objections. Then The Man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his family show up, and Lawrence is trapped in a whirlwind of chaos as her life becomes completely unglued.
Aronofsky’s film is a hellish phantasmagoria, and a lot of different meanings can be culled from it, particularly as Mother! becomes more bizarre and its imagery more surreal. However, it’s most clearly a sharp indictment of the reductive roles some men assign the women in their lives, robbing them of any sense of agency or respect. Lawrence’s character is a literal homemaker, having rebuilt their house from the burned-out hulk it once was. She spends much of the film trying to stop the poet’s various guests from damaging it, then outright tearing it apart. Bardem’s character expects her to be there and care for him, but never gives her wants and needs a moment of thought — not even when it comes to the pressing issue of having children.
That’s only amplified when The Man and his wife show up: Bardem is so wrapped up in the ego-feeding worship this minor fan provides that nearly everything else goes out the window. As the poet’s need for attention increases, he sidelines Lawrence’s character to the point where she might not even exist; everything is secondary to the demands of his desperate ego. But Aronofsky, who wrote as well as directed, clearly sees this dynamic as endemic to male artists in particular, which at times gives the film’s audacious, bizarro-world turns the feel of a personal confessional.
As if that wasn’t enough, the filmmaker and Jennifer Lawrence discussed at TIFF how the film is actually an allegory for climate change, and the way humanity has disregarded the planet. When something gets as crazy as Mother! does, there are a lot of different metaphors to pull from it.
It’s difficult to answer this question when it comes to a movie like this. Mother! is an impressive technical achievement, one that grabs hold of viewers with a vice-like grip and drags them through two hours of utter chaos. It is undeniably effective in setting mood and tone, and it’s the kind of film that will leave audiences talking no matter what they think of it. If the sole purpose of art is to create an emotional response, Mother! is a masterpiece.
But there is that issue of just how unhinged the film becomes. Without getting into spoiler territory, as Lawrence’s character sees her life spin out of control, the movie becomes increasingly disjointed and disconnected from any sort of linear narrative or reality. Things happen in this film that will absolutely cross the line for some viewers. One moment of violence in particular was an egregious step too far for me, and I’m the guy who thinks the Hostel movies get a bad rap. Mother! pushes so far beyond the range of what is typically considered acceptable that I can’t help but applaud Paramount Pictures for having the audacity to release it in the first place. It’s really a minor miracle, particularly in our world of expanded cinematic universes and groupthink sequels.
But that same audacity practically guarantees that vast numbers of people will loathe this film, and some will walk out on it entirely. And I’m not saying that as part of a festival-driven, “It’s so intense that somebody passed out!” hype wave. Mother! is going to piss people off, full stop, and its biggest challenge may be getting audiences to look at it as something beyond That Movie Where That One Really Terrible Thing Happens.
An R rating actually seems a bit light, but I’m sure the MPAA has done its usual job of asking the filmmakers to remove single frames so the movie meets whatever the ratings board’s threshold happens to be. Maybe an R+ would be more appropriate.
Mother! is scheduled for release on September 15th.Read More...
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