Friday, September 15, 2017

Requiem for a Scream: mother!

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, is a jangled, claustrophobic freakout, a Polanski-esque picture of domestic tension refracted into close, uncomfortable, intimate horror. It’s about miscommunication, a fundamental flaw in a relationship escalating into insurmountable obstacle as the situation grows into one out of control. The couple at its center live in a dreamy house in the middle of a forest clearing, with no road or driveway or any obvious means of escape. It’s mid-renovation, courtesy of the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who spends her days refurbishing the home. The older husband (Javier Bardem) is a writer we see poised with pen at the ready, but who never seems to write a word, or at least at first. As the film moves forward, their parallel mental states diverge, he a seemingly unstoppable obsessive people-person lit up with an almost divine (or devilish, perhaps?) zeal and she an increasingly vulnerable paranoiac understandably unsettled by a loss of control driven by her husband’s paradoxically uncommunicative openness. (It put me in mind of Aronofsky’s other works – Noah married to Black Swan, I suppose.) The film sticks closely, exclusively, to the wife’s perspective, pushing in with uncomfortable close-ups as her face reflects confusion, then stress, then mental anguish, and finally a complete and total breakdown. It’s understandable every step of the way, though seems to add up to less and less the longer it goes. 

The whole thing is shot in grainy, tremulous, shaky, close angles, maneuvering with maximum discomfort. We sit right up close to the boiling chaos about to erupt in this marriage, though the context for the leads’ personalities is sketched simply, hollowly, a clangorous and multipurpose metaphor. It’s clear from the beginning something is dangerously off about the couple, she far too patient and generous for his brooding dismissiveness. How often do we see her earnestly offer plain-spoken assertions of her wants and desires only to be rebuffed by his gruff selfishness? By the time a strange man (Ed Harris) shows up in the middle of the night coughing and smoking and asking if they have a spare room, it’s a sort of darkly funny laugh of recognition – an “of course he would” – to find the husband immediately agrees without consulting his wife. When their unannounced guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, dripping with the dark comedy of a contemptible houseguest, but oddly underused) turns up at the doorstep, she’s invited in, too. Then their grown sons are ringing the bell and one thing leads to another and it’s like the Marx brothers’ classic stateroom bit ran headlong into Repulsion. Lawrence plays relatable notes of total confusion, a sense of her world spinning out of control while everyone else acts like she’s the crazy one. Why are all these people piling into her house? What’s going on here?

Flowing with shock sensation – dripping blood, heartbeats in walls, crumbling architecture – the movie gets schlockier and nuttier as it goes, to the point where the wild sustained climax – I dare not spoil its shape or scope, but, boy howdy, does it take the inevitable progression of its plot to the farthest reaches of its insanity – had me thinking to myself, “what am I watching?” Aronofsky commits to the intensity of it all, building on the foundation of one sparsely characterized couple a muddled outsized allegory. Sure, Lawrence plays pained sweet homemaker, and Bardem plays smoldering artiste, but beyond that small flimsy bit of emotional scaffolding there’s nothing by way of personality or characterization to hold onto. (It’s one of those movies where the characters are unnamed, listed in the credits as simply Man and Woman and so on.) We only have pure shapeshifting symbolism (fitting for our current Mystique) – the twisted progression linking up inevitably with thoughts of domestic violence, societal misogyny, and cycles of abuse (both intimate and environmental), as well as the chaos that can follow in the wake of a tortured artist unable to handle fame. These grand ideas float through, but Aronofsky mostly highlights rattling unease and escalating abstract terror. This movie’s stressful, eventually howling with screams and fire and death in increasingly brutal effects. Aronofsky’s a master at marshalling filmmaking techniques – precise sound design, intuitive cutting, thick filmic cinematography, intense performances – to push buttons, but here it’s at or near its most fruitless. It’s technically dazzling and utterly exhausting.

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