Reviews for “mother!” have called it everything from “sickening” to “a berserk feast of filth,” but the most shocking thing about Darren Aronofsky’s wildly divisive new movie is that it’s hilarious. You wouldn’t expect to laugh so much during a movie that includes more disturbing WTF moments than you can count, but “mother!” shatters expectations. As A.O. Scott puts in his review for the New York Times: “Don’t listen to anyone who natters on about how intense or disturbing it is; it’s a hoot!”
Aronofsky is the farthest thing from a comedic filmmaker. Take one look at “Requiem for a Dream” or “Black Swan” and you’re more likely to recoil from shock and discomfort than crack up. “mother!’s” grand statements on the history of humanity and its relationship to the Earth make it a successor to “The Fountain” and “Noah,” but Aronofsky’s smartest move is giving up the brooding, self-serious tone of these thematic epics in favor of something far more playful. The film is so confounding on a scene-to-scene basis that if you aren’t laughing at the escalating insanity, you’re surely missing the point.
The first half of “mother!,” which acts as a subtle retelling of the Old Testament, works especially strong as a comedy; it’s undoubtedly the most hilarious hour of Aronofsky’s career. The complete lack of respect for Jennifer Lawrence’s character is so extreme that Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfieffer’s rudeness comes off as comically unnatural. Ed Harris smokes in the house after he’s been told numerous times to stop. Pfieffer keeps ignoring Lawrence’s rule to stay out of Bardem’s office. Bardem refuses to check in with his wife about anything. He acts without her permission and without any consideration for how his decisions will affect her.
The characters’ behavior is so reckless and selfish that it becomes ludicrous, and that’s where the humor lies in Aronofsky’s madness. (Not for nothing was he inspired by Luis Buñuel’s surrealist comic masterpiece “The Exterminating Angel.”) Nobody in their right mind would treat anyone the way these people treat Lawrence. The director creates a feeling of absurdity from the outset that signals to the viewer not to take these events literally. As a result, the humor becomes instrumental to the director’s goal of creating an allegorical narrative.
As the movie progresses, the laughs grow more and more outrageous. Lawrence finds herself in the throes of chaos when mourners show up to grieve Harris and Pfeiffer’s child, and they all take advantage of her house in hilariously bizarre ways. Two party-crashers flat-out ignore her numerous requests to stop sitting on the kitchen sink counter; one curses her out after she refuses to leave the house with him; a pair of others begin painting her walls. She stumbles on an older man lurking around private rooms, to which he shouts, “Just exploring!” Aronofsky doesn’t give Lawrence’s character or the audience any room to breathe. The succession of preposterous behavior gets faster and the comedy grows more outlandish along the way. The funniest bit might be when a woman enters Lawrence’s home and gives her a kiss on the cheek as if she’s an old friend; her baffled expression clinches it. It’s a throwaway moment that, in Aronofsky’s hands, becomes another absurd comedic aggressor.
Aronofsky being Aronfosky, the comedy is as funny as it is downright cruel. Nearly all the laughs in “mother!” come at Lawrence’s expense. The way the people around her take advantage of her and act in complete disregard for her well being is more darkly amusing than it sounds. But these laugh moments also suggest an extreme calculation behind the camera. The behavior goes from irreverent to downright horrifying so quickly in the film’s final act that “mother!” gives you whiplash. With the violent twist of the climax, you’re no longer laughing. Aronofsky creates a reactionary journey that goes from hilarity to nausea all in service of his movie’s grand vision.
Both Aronofsky and Lawrence have spoken at length about “mother!” as an allegory for environmentalism. The film chronicles humanity’s raping of the Earth from the moment God created man to the 21st century crises of terrorism, war, and the refugee crisis. The differences between the two halves of the film and the blunt tonal shift is Aronofsky’s way of showing just how rapidly our world has gone to hell in the last century. Aronofsky has it both ways: His comedy involves watching Lawrence lose her patience, but once humanity succumbs to its most violent urges, it’s a nightmare. Ultimately, the director seems to be arguing that the joke’s on us: By the time we stop laughing about the world’s problems, it might be too late to do something about it.
Gallows humor is a longstanding fuel for satiric argumentation. After all, what was “Dr. Strangelove” if not a cautionary tale about the nuclear arms race? Its outlook remains potent to this day, and it’s likely that “mother!” will stand the test of time as well. The more humanity refuses to take the environmental crisis seriously, the more humanity is digging its own grave. It’s not the subtlest statement, but it’s the rare punchline that arrives like a punch to the gut.