Culture

Jennifer Lawrence’s Grotesque Spoof of the Nativity

Javier Bardem (at left) and Jennifer Lawrence in Mother (Paramount Pictures)
Mother, an exercise in torture porn, may be the vilest movie ever released by a major Hollywood studio.

Ordinarily when a filmmaker goes trampling all over your senses with an eye toward maximizing disgust, it’s for the purpose of producing some cheap scares. In Mother, though, the aim is a macabre pastiche of people’s most cherished and deeply held beliefs. Deliberately grotesque and nauseating, and seemingly engineered to outrage Christians, especially Catholics, Mother represents a stain on the reputation of Paramount Pictures, which once produced Going My Way. It may be the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, Mother (or, as the publicity materials annoyingly style the title, mother!) stars the filmmaker’s girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence, as a timid, frail housewife who wishes she could have a baby with her husband (Javier Bardem), an acclaimed writer. She is painstakingly restoring their house, a glorious country manse, which was previously destroyed in a fire, while her man grapples with writer’s block.

The appearance of a mysterious stranger (Ed Harris) with a sketchy story — he claims to be a surgeon who mistook the house for a bed-and-breakfast — introduces a creepy element that suggests a Gothic horror tale, but that’s not where the film is actually heading. When the visitor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) also turns up, also uninvited, and both of them settle into the house and start messing things up, it’s bewildering to the lady of the house and to the audience. Her husband is strangely forgiving of everything that happens, welcoming to a fault, and that we never learn his name adds to the sense that everything is slightly off-kilter here. He is known in the credits simply as “Him,” while the Lawrence character isn’t given a name, listed in the credits as “Mother.” Harris’s and Pfeiffer’s characters are identified only as “Man” and “Woman.” The reasons for all this coyness won’t become apparent until the very end.

To experience the final half-hour is to understand what it must feel like to be a clump of broccoli in a Cuisinart.

The first half of the movie plays like the world’s longest Saturday Night Live sketch about unwelcome houseguests, but Aronofsky is just warming up. It turns out that he is versed in the Bible, though not particularly well versed: A few years ago he made Noah, in which the Old Testament patriarch was reimagined as an unlikely superhero doing battle with monsters made out of boulders. In Mother, the Bible parallels emerge as sophomoric and sloppy — was the Virgin Mary actually present at the murder of Abel? I don’t think she was. But then again Aronofsky wrote, or spat out, the script in only five days.

The film reboots for a second half whose even more egregious lack of appeal can scarcely be overstated. To call it “Better Homes and Gardens meets Apocalypse Now, with a soupçon of Rosembary’s Baby” would probably make it sound much more fun than it actually is. To experience the final half-hour is to understand what it must feel like to be a clump of broccoli in a Cuisinart. Loud, extravagant, and obnoxious, Mother is the kind of film that makes you want to walk out, demand your money back, then file for a restraining order that would forbid the director from coming within 500 miles of any filmmaking equipment again. The following groups of people should take care to avoid Mother at all cost: pregnant women, those with nervous constitutions or heart conditions, and anyone who happens to be burdened with good taste. Aronofsky paints a vision of hell that goes way beyond making the point; it’s like a Sunday-school lesson in the form of a midnight movie from the schlockmeisters at Troma Entertainment, the fellows who gave you Class of Nuke ’Em High and Blood Sucking Freaks. Lawrence is utterly befouled and degraded, including by having her dress ripped off by a mob, and it’s piteous to watch.

Critics will no doubt enjoy calling the film, particularly its second half, “subversive,” “brave,” “transgressive,” etc., as though any satirical impulse were less risky than mocking Christian dogma. Other defenders will protest that Aronofsky’s vision of ugliness and despair goes back to Hieronymous Bosch and beyond, joining a long tradition of purposefully lurid apocalyptic tales backed by a stern moralism — repent, ye sinners. But I don’t see any seriousness of purpose, just a Biblically-infused version of torture porn.

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Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.

 

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