At first glance, Mother is about a doomed marriage between incompatible people. She’s an introvert who recharges her batteries with solitude and home repair in a home that is in constant need of work, whether that’s just basic upkeep or the rotted spots she keeps finding in the woodwork. He’s an extrovert who needs other people to feel like his best self and who also dominates the relationship with his pleasant but insistent force of will. He often talks about a decision they’ve made together when he’s never discussed anything with her and is instead relying on her sense of courtesy to not make a scene by disagreeing. It’s easy to see why he keeps her around, as he needs someone to cook and clean and support him, but it’s harder to imagine what’s keeping her there.
Adding stress to their fatally flawed union are the admirers and well-wishers who show up on their doorstep. She enjoys his poetry, too, but her praise is not enough. With Bardem needing their overheated and unqualified acclaim and the fans craving his brilliance, they’re stuck in a symbiotic relationship that leaves Lawrence out. Bardem’s need to be worshipped translates into a ready forgiveness towards his fans, and they need a great deal of forgiveness. As the second guest, the feline Pfeiffer steals the film with her misplaced entitlement, shooting Lawrence long looks of antipathy, but at least she acknowledges Lawrence’s existence. When the numbers get bigger, Lawrence’s soft complaints fall on deaf ears, and her home is being taken apart appliance by appliance and brick by brick. In the midst of this destruction, Bardem keeps telling Lawrence about how much fun he’s having and how bubbly and entertaining all these people are. Tellingly, the viewer never sees that description, only getting Lawrence’s view of them as buzzards and interlopers intent on selfish consumption and destruction.
The nightmarish quality of Mother becomes increasingly apparent as the viewer shifts in their seat and can feel their vital signs escalate and result in a stress headache. Granting that no one likes to hear about someone else’s dreams, the structure of Mother, in which no amount of courtesy or prodding or screaming can get someone to help you or comply with you, is a dream that I’ve had more than once. If the particulars are lost to the daylight, the feeling of intense powerlessness stays with me, and that’s the feeling of watching Mother. Aronofsky has plumbed the depths of human misery and suffering, bringing the viewer to a state of being that is best kept at a long distance, and he does it again here. The feeling of violation is so evocative that it nearly has the viewer standing up in the theater and screaming ‘Get out’ at the guests along with Lawrence.
The biblical allegory of Mother eventually gets clunky and over-obvious, resulting in some truly over-the-top imagery that had me cackling, but this is not an intellectual exercise first and foremost. Mother is an emotional journey, overwhelming in how pervasively it seeps into your being. The emotions might be unpleasant, but they’re in service to a masterful director in complete control of his vision. B+