Whatever else we might say about it, mother! is the most Darren Aronofsky of all Darren Aronfsky films, combining at least something from every one of his previous six features. This is the point where I need to admit that I'd rank those six features on a scale from "hated it" to "that was pretty okay",* and that matters because mother! is necessarily a subjective movie. Not just subjective at the level of "did I appreciate the experience of sitting through this movie", which every film is; nor subjective at the level of "is this a well-made and good piece of art", which every film also is. It's subjective at the level of "describe the content of this film" - in the hours since mother! opened to general audiences, I've heard it described as an allegory for the creative process, for the filmmaking process specifically, for Aronofsky's filmmaking process specifically, for the dangers of collectivist action, for the dangers of authoritarianism, for the Syrian refugee crisis, and for the perilous state of an overpopulated (mother!) Earth.

Me, I think it's about overzealous religious followers, which is maybe the thing I've heard it described as the most often, but what seems most interesting to me about this plethora of interpretive possibilities is not whether any of them is most right, or if they're all right to some degree. It's that the film can leave itself open to so many readings without any of them actually being the denoted content of the film, which is a young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a sprawling old Victorian house in the middle of a field in the middle of a forest with her husband (Javier Bardem), a poet suffering from writer's block, and whose rabidly appreciative fandom fills the young woman with confusion, misery, and dread. Because it's definitely not about that - you'll note that the characters have no names, which is a dead giveaway in this or any other medium that we're operating in the Land of Symbolism. And that's before we get to the end credits, where these and all the other characters who pop up in the film are identified with mostly one-word descriptors that, like the film's title, are all written lowercase (with one terribly importance exception). The word "pretentious" gets overused, but begad, Aronofsky has made a hard run for making one of the most pretentious films I've ever seen, and those end credits (also including "gratitude" where normal people put "special thanks") are a big part of the reason why.

Notwithstanding its wide theatrical release, notwithstanding the presence of Lawrence (one of the only genuine movie stars we've got right now), and especially notwithstanding the hilariously misleading ad campaign that tried to pitch this as a relatively straightforward horror film on the Gaslight model, mother! is pretty unmistakably an avant-garde film. What happens - denotatively, I mean - is that a woman burns to death in the opening shot, with a distinctly certain, confident expression on her face, especially for someone whose skin is peeling away in ashy chunks. Then we see Bardem's character holding a crystal, which he reverently places on a sort of pedestal. From here, it generates a wave that restores the burned-out husk of a house back to something like it's former glory: it looks old, and in need of restoration, but sturdy and homey anyway. Last of all, it generates a female body in a bed, and this turns out to be Lawrence. So it's no spoiler at all to say that Lawrence's character isn't "real"; the whole movie takes place in some kind of surrogate reality. Or a Surogat reality, if you will (and you very much should follow that link; it leads a 1961 Yugoslav short film that actually forms quite a tight thematic double-feature with mother!, and will anyways be the best thing you could spend ten minutes watching today).

The two-hour film spans nine months and also appears to take place largely in real time; the young woman serves as our very close point-of-view anchor for a story that mostly begins when a coughing man (Ed Harris) arrives at the house, claiming to have mistaken it for a bed and breakfast; a bit later, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, along with their two adult sons (brothers Domnhall and Brian Gleeson), who are having a vicious fight over the family will, a fight that ends with one of them beaten to death right inside the house. As night falls, seemingly in the span of about five minutes, the young woman tries to clean the blood from her wooden floors, but is interrupted when her husband gregariously offers to let the grieving family stage a wake.

That's literally not even the half of it, but it's as far as I dare go without tripping over spoilers (it is a movie that is entirely impossible to spoil, but even so). We've already gotten some of the more obvious religious symbolism, most noticeably Cain and Abel, and Bardem the creator-god willing a universe and apparently into existence. And much more religious symbolism is to come: if Ο€, Noah, and mother!'s own first half are all drenched in Jewish mysticism and iconography, the second half of mother! is the more-or-less explicit New Testament to the first half's Old Testament, bringing in imagery of The Son as a sacrifice to the world through the ritual of communion, as well as conspicuous use of what look awfully like altar votive candles.

I have no fucking idea why all the trouble. "The overly religious can be destructive" isn't enough of a theme to justify the effort mother! sinks into it. I'm not sure that any theme would. The thing is, the film is so explicitly allegorical - without every bothering to clarify what it's trying to allegorise, and to hell with that - that every plot beat, and the hard character work being done by at least Lawrence, Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, and Bardem (and in that order) feels quite useless; we know that none of this is "real" even in the way that fictional movies are "real", so why pretend that Lawrence's character is actually feeling any of the horror-thriller confusion that the movie keeps insisting on through its non-music (composer JΓ³hann JΓ³hannsson helped Aronofsky concoct the film's Expressionistic soundscape, which is easily the best thing about the movie), and its jumpy editing?

Frankly, would that it was a horror-thriller. The script is tiresomely philosophical without having any philosophy, and all that leaves behind is its non-stop mood-creating. I will say this on behalf of the movie: it certainly communicates the sense of nervous confusion that the main character feels, and as a wholly affective piece, it succeeds in having affect. That's definitely not nothing, but it's certainly not enough, and "the confusing movie is confusing" feels as much like an insult as praise. At any rate, any hope that this was a horror film or even a proper thriller is quickly dashed: notwithstanding the soundtrack, the atmosphere generated by the visuals is of a wholly different sort: shooting once again on 16mm, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have created a preposterously ugly movie, one whose visuals quickly adopt a one-size-fits-all shade of murky brown. And in keeping with the intent to put us deep into the mental state of Lawrence's character (a non-person whom we've literally watched be created out of thin air, I'll remind you), the film padlocks itself to Lawrence's face, virtually never moving out of close-ups even during jagged hand-held scenes.

It's kind of awful, and that "kind of" is solely in deference to Lawrence's performance, which is better than the film needs - better, for that matter, than the film is structured to be capable of using. But it's ambitious, showily so, just like everything else in the movie. It's the ambition of a talented film school student who has been praised as "the best" once too often, and has lost any sense of discipline; mother! is an experimental film that's lost sight of what the experiment was supposed to be, a thematic treatise playing peek-a-boo with its themes, and it feels ghastly over-proud of its own intelligence and cunning.




*With a special "I probably ought to see it again" for The Fountain.