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One of my favorite films that I ever distributed is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Believe me, it’ll live in history long after most celluloid fades. When you watch it and then watch something like John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light, the subtext of The Master is understanding an entire generation’s need — especially World War II veterans — to find some sort of peace from the horrors of war. Some people decided to lead normal lives, some drank, and some found deep religion. In the case of The Master, they turned to a cult to heal pain. It’s more complicated than that of course, but I bring it up because it’s a daring and fantastic movie that people frequently remark about when they see me. And that movie got an ‘F’ Cinemascore – so what? Apparently so did Mother!
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Mother! is another one of these movies that will live forever. Critics and audiences lament the fact that there isn’t any new, daring or original work out there. If that’s the case, then this is The Holy Grail of original, yet it works its magic in a genre that is as old as movies itself – horror.
Watching Aronofsky’s Mother! brought back a flood of memories. I was suddenly back in one of my college film classes, watching Polanski’s Repulsion for the first time. Something happened in that University of Buffalo classroom – the film produced a near-physical reaction amongst my peers. The whole class was entirely, totally freaked out. Half the room loved it, the other half hated it. Both accused it of being Freudian, or a nightmare, or some combination of both. But it was more than that to me; it was one of the first times I’d watched something that could scare the shit out of an audience while also making them think.
Repulsion was a movie with a lot on its mind. It was a kind of haunted house story, and also a philosophical inquiry. It lived in the same twisted landscape as Bunuel’s Belle Du Jour. Though Catherine Deneuve starred in both, it was like watching two different women. I could write a whole other essay on Deneuve alone; she’s the kind of performer that makes any work she’s in infinitely better by the nature of her involvement. She can be so joyful and engaging – I’m thinking of her performance in Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls Of Rochfort – or, in the hands of Polanski or Bunuel, an icy force to be reckoned with.
But forget all of this highfalutin’ analysis for just a moment – my point is, this movie really, deeply scared me. And that could have been it, and I would have been satisfied. But Darren isn’t the kind of filmmaker that aims for ‘just satisfied’. He wants you to commit to his vision, to give something of yourself for it.
In that way, he reminds me of F.W. Murnau, whose films lived in a similar dreamscape locale and whose Nosferatu monster was too scary to look at but too fascinating to look away from. That movie stayed with me, and has come to inform my love of Darren’s work. He and Murnau seem to almost paint each of their scenes, rather than strictly block out movements and guide performances. There’s a fluidity to their work; it’s startling, unnerving, but brilliant.
Mother! is the ultimate writer’s block movie. We’ve seen some excellent films come from this sub-genre, with Stephen King’s works often leading the pack. But this is not just a story of stymied genius; it exists in a class of its own. The layers astound me – the biblical, the natural, the referential – all stacking together to lead us into a kind of wild ride through the Western world’s narrative canon. And yet it never feels overstuffed – the tension is as taut as can be. The first twenty minutes had me on the edge of my seat; I nearly jumped out of my skin when we first see Javier Bardem on screen. When I’m frightened, I reach Steph Curry heights; Mother! had me hanging off the basket rim.
And the dread never lessens, just builds; Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up and there’s something so youthful about their characters – a kind of almost-feral sexiness that totally dominated their scenes. I couldn’t look away. And I know I’m prejudiced about Jennifer Lawrence, because I always have and always will think she’s great. But with each performance, it becomes clear to me that she is one of the Greats, alongside my girl Judi Dench and the indomitable Meryl Streep.
I finished the film, and then watched it again right away. This is no criticism, but I liked the first time more, purely because of the rush that comes with brushing against such outrageous, exciting filmmaking. The viewer experience is a wild ride that is totally anchored by Jennifer Lawrence throughout. She’s not just the protagonist – she is the film’s locus, its center, its heart. Aronofsky shot her in a way that feels so unique to how she is usually positioned; she’s as much our lead as she is our Master of Ceremonies, or perhaps our Virgil, leading us further and further into Darren’s inferno.
This weekend, the true test for a film in my family is taking place; my fourteen-year old daughter Ruthie and her pack of girlfriends are eschewing their bar and bat mitzvah invitations to screen Mother! per my request. Ruthie is a horror fanatic – she’s seen Annabelle three times and It more times than I care to admit in print t– and initially thought Mother! would be too philosophical or high-brow for her tastes. I’ve told her that it certainly is intelligent, but remains accessible; it’s not the kind of allegorical film that should alienate viewers, but rather engages them in its conversation. It’s not a film that shoves an agenda in your face, but rather one that presents you with a seat at the table for further discussion and debate.
It should be clear to anyone reading that I think Darren is brilliant, as is his film. I expect the conversations about Mother! will continue long after it has left theaters. He brought us a story we all thought we knew, and made it his own; a story about women and men, the creative process and its victims. It’s a terrifying story, but an important one.
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