Mother! (Aronofsky, 2017) and Super Dark Times (Phillips, 2017)

Mother! is probably my favorite Aronofsky film since The Wrestler. It can be frustrating, and is pretty hilarious to watch in a big multiplex (which I did, alongside a really uncomfortable, largely unhappy crowd. I guess the marketing strategy “Jennifer Lawrence horror film” and this end product don’t really jibe). It’s got something of Rosemary’s Baby and maybe Marco Ferrari in it, but it really does feel like a successor (and superior film) to Black Swan.


Mother (Lawrence) lives in a really isolated house with her husband, the poet (Javier Bardem). One day people come to visit. There’s a man claiming he’s a doctor (Ed Harris), and eventually his wife (a truly awesome Michelle Pfeiffer) and children arrive. It’s not really a “home invasion” or typical “unwanted guests” narrative since the poet is so keen on keeping them there, but it verges on as much.

The thing that really struck me about Mother! is how funny it is. I think intentionally so, most of the time. Aronofsky kind of clues us into this mood by the title. The way the exclamation point dances in at the end of the title card seems to hint at something not just straight-laced. Some of the doctor and his wife’s reactions to things are outlandish (in a film that gets really outlandish), and much else of the comedy comes from how easily and brazenly they resist or contradict anything Lawrence’s character says.

Mother! is unbelievably staged. I mean the blocking is brilliant. A largely handheld camera that moves a lot, we’ve often got Lawrence in really tight frames. Aronofsky cuts on her turning towards us so many times in this film, keeping her not only in the foreground, but mostly open to camera. She’s got a really tight eyeline throughout, nearly looking into the lens. By contrast, almost everyone else’s dominant frame is wider, and with a wider eyeline. We’re rarely over anyone else’s shoulder looking at Lawrence, but we’re constantly over her shoulder. Even in pretty tight CU, Aronofsky and longtime DP Matthew Libatique make the background meaningful as we catch glimpses of things and interlopers.

Bardem uses his long smile really well in this film. It slowly crinkles into existence, frighteningly at times. He’s not at all a sympathetic character, but I found it curious that he gets a late line that makes him so close to sympathetic. When he speaks to a charred Lawrence about love his tone is pleading, his gestures tender. Of course all of this is in service of himself, but even Lawrence’s willing reply puts the character who has been the true villain (if this film has one) the whole time right on the line of empathy.

For me, this is really a film about the muse, told from the muse’s perspective. Lawrence is, of course, the muse, but it’s not just her. As the final shot suggests, the poet doesn’t need Lawrence’s love, he needs any love. And no love is ever enough, hence the absolute chaos that ensues in each of the two halves (this is the first 2-act film I can remember in some time): no adoration is ever enough for the celebrity that the poet desires, and therefore the world collapses under the weight of praise, leading him to try all over again.

This is also a film about the creative process (though it would be much more so were it told from the poet’s perspective), and about being a woman in a man’s world (a theme that really hits home when Pfeiffer’s character talks to Lawrence’s about what underwear she should wear).

The cyclical structure of the film, the hidden meaning of “home” (Lawrence is both at home and is literally home, at the end), the biblical references (Cain and Abel, the body of Christ, etc) all add intriguing layers to a film that is at its most energetic and beautiful when Lawrence’s character is confused and running through the labyrinthine house.

That 2-act structure is interesting. I’m guessing there’s a way to break this into three acts, but the split is so clear: each ends with the death of a son, each ends with the chaos of a party of rabid fans gone mad, each ends with some violence done to the house (and thereby to Lawrence’s character). The 50-50 division makes the film feel somehow more open-ended. Maybe it’s just because I’m used to a clearer three acts.

I quite liked Mother! Its style is something I’ll want to return to, and I’ll think back to the narrative a lot.

Super Dark Times

This is a really great debut film from Kevin Phillips. It’s coming-of-age narrative takes a strange turn to the psycho-slasher genre in the last 25 minutes that doesn’t land, but otherwise it has great mood and period set pieces.

Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan are great as Zach and Josh, two high school friends who nerd out about girls in their class and video games, and get tied up in an accidental murder.

Set in the 1990s, a lot of those temporal indicators – scrambled porn on a tube TV, PC desktop screensavers – add up to make the film something steeped in its time. It’s nostalgic, but less so than say, Stranger Things, where the mise-en-scène is sometimes a game of catch-the-reference. In Super Dark Times it just suffuses and works.

Phillips camera is so confident in here. So is the cinematography. There’s an amazing first dream/nightmare sequence that is worth rewatching, and generally just great blocking. Phillips’ slow-motion feels perfectly timed (love that carton-slicing scene) and his wide-shots are lonely and well-paced.

The opening scene is a great combination of something like montage filmmaking with the slow-build style Phillips prefers in the first 2/3: a broken window, a dear in CU, student-reaction shots. It tells us what happened but leaves it off-screen. I love when Phillips returns to the exterior of the school, showing that same window now boarded up with “Fuck you” spray painted over it. None of this is ever returned to it, it’s just great prologue, mood-setter, and transition.

The last act falls off a bit. Josh’s transformation doesn’t feel totally earned in the way it should given the dramatic and traumatic preceding events. When Zach, in quick montage over the phone, pieces together what he thinks is happening, he’s not far off. But that phone call and the visual presentation of his theory feels so comical that when that’s what basically did/does happen, it seems at odds with the great mood that’s come before.



About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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One Response to Mother! (Aronofsky, 2017) and Super Dark Times (Phillips, 2017)

  1. Pingback: The Best Films of 2017 | dcpfilm

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