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a film that fails on multiple levels
The principle rule of allegory is that it must function on two levels - the plain narrative, what the audience sees or reads, and the metaphorical, the level beyond the seen or read, usually conveying a deeper meaning. An allegory which fails as a narrative is a morality play; an allegory that fails on the metaphorical level is a nonsensical tale.
mother! fails on both levels, and the result is a confusing mess as likely to bore as it is to disgust.
The script is stark, but as opposed to offering up a Hemingway-esque brevity and punch, it instead descends to the level of drive by dialogue, actors delivering short statements with blank expressions and then leaving the room they're in. Granted, the actors only had Aronofsky's script to work with, and he's on record as saying it only took five days to write, which is visible in every scene. An undergrad brags about finishing their paper the night before it's due; a screenwriter should not laud a similar process for his film.
The only film that comes close to the delivery in mother! is The Room, which may very well be the superior of the two. And if you told me that Bardem, normally a captivating actor, had modeled his performance of Him on Wiseau's Johnny, I would readily believe you.
In fact, the only actor who brings any life to this joyless epic is Pfeiffer, whose facial expressions and tone elevate her sniping dialogue far above the written quality. She's also the only one who brings any passion to her role, as Lawrence seems to have been reduced to two speeds - blank expression and monotone speech, or screaming so hard she cracks a rib. All granularity seen in her previous performances is gone here.
The characters portrayed by normally fine actors are so small, so one dimensional, one barely cares about them as people, let alone as stand ins for something larger than themselves. I could muster neither sympathy nor even vague interest in the foibles and woes of this couple, nor their never-ending torrent of house guests. (Judging by the laughs in the theater, I wasn't the only one.) Their tragedies in the final third were grating, not because they were disgusting, or shocking, but because I was never interested in them to begin with.
The setting is a perfect mirror to Lawrence's acting, if not her character. The film takes places in a rustic, half finished house. As before with the script, any attempt at a spare beauty is never realized, and the end result looks like the set designers didn't want to spend too much time on something they knew would literally be ripped apart in the final act. The house is our only setting in this film, so its lack of visual interest is a massive detriment.
The cinematography is likewise lackluster, with nothing special to either set it apart or condemn it. It is filmed adequately. The story and performances were clearly meant to be the jewel here, a situation analogous to purchasing a workable frame only to enshrine pages from the 1988 Albuquerque phone book therein.
And since I brought up analogy, the elephant in the room, the roughshod Biblical allegory. Said allegory falls flat on its face as soon as its analyzed in the slightest. Lawrence is Aronofsky's self insertion character (in the style of bad fan fiction) to the Christian canon, a Gaia character who forms an unbalanced duality with Him, the writer's presentation of the Christian God.
Him is never very godlike, and his standing as "God" is simply revealed to us at the end, a classic example of telling and not showing. While observant viewers may be able to deduce his role from context earlier in the film, he is never characterized in a way that makes his stated role fit his perceived role. An allegory is not proclaiming a character to be other than they have been observed by way of a brief statement at the end.
The titular mother, the self insertion Gaia character, has a similar problem - she demonstrates none of the qualities common to portrayals of Mother Earth figures in fiction. Instead, she is aloof, credulous, and dense. If the point intended to be made was Aronofsky's self-proclaimed howl about the treatment of the planet, perhaps he should have created a Mother Earth figure that was remotely sympathetic, or relatable. What we have instead is a distant robot whose demise was met with yawns.
The revelation, easily predicted from the first scene, that this is a cycle these characters have been locked in since time immemorial, fails to shock or elicit a reaction, unless one counts exasperation. It also drives the allegory firmly off the rails, moving our underlying mythology from a Christian creation and eschatology to something more Eastern, with reality a cyclical illusion.
There was an opportunity here for a valid story to be told on multiple levels. We live in an era of man made climate change and contemporary Christianity is ripe for criticism. A more skilled writer and director could have pulled off a tale that would be as heartbreaking as it was true. And perhaps Aronofsky could have done that, had he taken his time and revised even the slightest bit. (However, as this is his second failure in a row that deals with Biblical themes, perhaps not.)
What we are treated to instead is the cinematic equivalent of soda crackers and a brief lecture by an inarticulate first year undergrad about religion and environmentalism. I wish I could end this with the famous quotation from King Lear, but it's not entirely accurate. We were only given the idea of sound and fury, not the genuine article. This film is the shadow of a shadow, and in that, at least, it does signify nothing.