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mother!

Year: 2017
Studio: Paramount
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig

There's rarely been a better example of your opinion about a movie depending on how long after its release you watch it. I remember this movie coming and going from cinemas and heard all the divisive reviews without seeing it, and one of the most discussed aspects of it was what it all means.

Even if you know nothing about mother! it's fairly obvious it's all a parable for something. In a very early scene it's revealed the grand farmhouse the lead characters live in is simply plonked in the middle of a grassland without even so much as a driveway – they simply step off the front balcony into light woodland. And the symbolism piles up from there until the closing frames.

Jennifer Lawrence is the unnamed woman (known in the credits only as 'Mother') married to an older man and a poet (Javier Bardem – 'Him') who's lost his creative mojo. Their relationship seems amiable and loving despite his professional frustration, but when a stranger shows up at the door (Ed Harris) that her husband suddenly shows outsized generosity to – asking him to stay the night – cracks start to form between them.

The next day his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, charismatic but slowly turning icy and bitchy, especially to Mother. And all the while Him insists on extending their guests/invaders overwhelming courtesy while resolutely ignoring his young wife's discomfort about it.

From there the passive home invasion only gets weirder. The houseguest couple's grown sons arrive at the house where all four of them argue about the man's will, resulting in a brutal fight that leaves one of them badly injured and eventually dead.

Dozens more people show up for a funeral service, all of them treating the house like it's alternately a nightclub and a barn. When it goes too far she finally snaps, ordering them all angrily out and berating her husband for ignoring her wishes and making her feel encroached upon and unsafe.

The two reconnect, and after news that she's pregnant, she organises an opulent dinner for them both to celebrate. But his happiness at the baby has rekindled his creative mojo and his latest book of poetry (which has already been published) has come out and it's a hit. When they're about to sit down and eat, they discover clusters of people outside their house holding a vigil to him.

He insists he owes it to his fans to at least go outside and talk to them and when he does so, the peace and love of the household is shattered so quickly it'll give you whiplash.

It starts with more people pouring into the house for an erstwhile launch party she tries to control to soldiers wielding automatic weapons, flak and gunfire everywhere, the house blacked out and on fire, his publisher (Kristen Wiig, who'd originally been perky and friendly when she joined the party) coldly executing bound prisoners and a religious cult around Mother and the baby springing up that ends in more bloodshed while she and her husband fight their way through screams, chaos and death. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, it escalates quickly.

And the grand metaphor itself is shot through with further symbols and motifs, from the bloodstain on the floor left by the dead son of their guests to the scary basement with the secret wall and the boiler that lights by itself.

Then there's the crystal artefact the husband holds so dear, the fact that the house stood once before and burned down, the scenes of the camera sweeping across the interior as it morphs from smouldering and burnt to new and restored, and countless more (I read about one in which a woman's bra has a leaf pattern and is supposed to be a metaphor for popular depictions of Adam and Eve)

If you haven't read Aronofsky's explanations about the story in interviews that came out months after the release you might come up with a couple of your own theories, and they'd probably be as valid as any other.

One that seems pretty pervasive is the way women are so often press-ganged into roles of domestic servitude while husbands ignore them and reach for greatness, ready to accept adulation from countless strangers while the person closest to them who really loves them is abused and left adrift. Or, boiled down further, how women are conditioned to love their prisons of gender expectation.

I'm not going to reveal here what he said mother! is actually about because it's kind of a spoiler, but I think I had quite a different experience going in to it than those original audiences did because I was looking for certain meanings behind the symbolism.

Does having that foreknowledge make the experience more satisfying? If you were well versed in the cultural and social frameworks Aronofsky says mother! refers to, maybe. But it's just as likely you'll spend the whole time trying to figure out what real world parallels to ascribe everything to, like I did. That I failed to do so might say more about me than the movie, but I didn't see much past the surface.

All of which isn't to say that surface isn't worthy filmmaking. Apart from the technical artistry, like how he stages the choreography in the geography of the setting, the script and performances combine into a very effective mood of discomfort. From the minute Harris shows up as the travelling stranger there's a constant sense of social impropriety, of boundaries of small talk and social relations crossed, sometimes destroyed – especially by Pfeiffer.

You might not love it, but you'll certainly spend time thinking about it when it's over.

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