Film and drama

Screen Themes: Mother! and the puzzling career of Darren Aronofsky

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Let's take a cautious step into a the disturbing world of film director Darren Aronofsky, as entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look back at his filmography and the controversial Mother!


Directed by Darren Aronofsky (2017) 

This is one of those movies that works better the less you know about the plot, so this review will be deliberately vague on key details. At the most superficial level, Mother! tells the story of a married couple who move to an isolated mansion so he can work on his writing while she refurbishes the massive residence. When their solitude is interrupted by a dying man and his caustic wife, things start to spiral out of control.

From a casting perspective, Mother! is an embarrassment of riches. Multiple Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence plays the lead (nothing as prosaic as character names here), while Javier Bardem plays the increasingly unhinged writer. Ed Harris plays the dying man, proving that he can keep up with his younger peers in the "big acting" stakes and Michelle Pfeiffer essays one of the most unsympathetic characters in memory.

The problem with Mother! lies not with the cast or the frequently striking cinematography from longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, but the script and some of the directorial choices. Glacially slow at times and with a plot twist that entirely obvious from the opening scene, Mother! is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Character interactions become increasingly frustrating, as does the title character’s lack of agency or will to stand up for herself. Less patient viewers may find themselves shouting at the screen "Just do something, damn it!", but this movie isn’t made for you, sir or madam.

Much has been made about how shocking Mother! is and, when you get to the scene in question, you’ll know immediately what the fuss is all about. While there is really nothing new here, some credit must go to Aronofsky for mining underground horror films like August Underground for inspiration. On the other hand, I cared so little about the characters, by the time the shocking bit rolled around the reveal fell flat, although this opinion clearly wasn’t shared by the couple that chose this moment to walk out in disgust.

If you’re a fan of slow burn thrillers like The Witch, there is a chance you’ll find something to like in Mother!, but most viewers will likely find it pretentious, ponderous and vaguely frustrating.

I f**king hated it.

The Puzzling Career of Darren Aronofsky

Born in Brooklyn in 1969, Darren Aronofsky studied film at Harvard University, and namechecks directors like Akira Kurosawa, Jim Jarmusch and Terry Gilliam as early influences.

After completing film school he took the indie approach to his first movie, financing it in part with donations from his friends and family in return for screen credits. The film in question was Pi, produced on a reported budget of $60,000 and premiering to a positive ciritical buzz at Sundance in 1998.

Hugely claustrophobic and surprisingly compelling for a movie about maths, Pi was picked up for distribution by Artisan Entertainment for a cool million and Aronofsky used the payoff to focus on one of his passion projects, an adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s harrowing novel Requiem for a Dream. Starring Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans in career-best performances, the movie chronicled character descents into addiction and the subjugation of self that comes along with it.

Aronofsky’s next film was the first to suggest all may not be right with the wunderkind director. Panned by critics and featuring a rare paycheck performance from Hugh Jackman, 2006’s The Fountain was set across multiple timelines, and told the story of one man’s struggle to save his dying wife, but missed the mark by a long shot and ended up a pretentious mess with heavy religious overtones.

When rumours emerged that Aronofsky was working with Mickey Rourke on a movie set in the world of professional wrestling, many critics raised an eyebrow, but The Wrestler turned out to be a spectacular film about a broken man trying to recapture past glories. Featuring a breathtaking return to form from Rourke (particularly considering his sleep-walking performance in The Expendables), The Wrestler managed to capture the heart of a much-maligned "sport" and show what happens when those who expected to burn out are instead forced to fade away.

2010 saw the release of Black Swan, the disturbing tale of a ballerina willing to sacrifice everything to make it to the top. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and stock ‘creepy French dude’ Vincent Cassel, the film was lyrical and strange, an ode to the dancers who sacrifice their health (and sometimes sanity) to transform themselves into their character. Just when it looked like Aronofsky could do no wrong, things started to go South…

Firstly, Aronofsky was attached to direct The Wolverine, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. The gig eventually went to James Mangold (who made a crap movie but finally got it right on Logan), while Aronofsky went off to direct a video of the god-awful collaboration between Metallica and Lou Reed. And then he started making Noah.

Despite making huge piles of money at the box office (thanks to motivated Christian audiences), Noah was objectively terrible, introducing giant stone golems and an angry Australian Noah to the flood myth for some reason. Clocking in at well over two hours the film dragged interminably, and frankly made both Noah and the Lord look like massive dicks.

Which brings us back around to Mother! Not Aronofsky’s best movie (that would be Requiem vbn for a Dream) or the worst (hello, Noah) but an interesting experiment that failed on many levels for this particular viewer…

Pi: 7/10

Requiem for a Dream: 9/10

The Fountain: 3/10

The Wrestler: 9/10

Black Swan: 8/10

Noah: 1/10

Mother!: 6/10

Books by John Turnbull are now available on Amazon and Kindle. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in the IA store HERE. (Free postage!)

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