Darren Aronofsky wants to issue you an apology.
The brassy, flashy American auteur has made a movie in a fugue state about the world's current state. It's a film set up as a marital drama and designed to feel like a horror movie. But those are just clothes, adornments to disguise the angry body throbbing underneath.
And given that he's made such a purposeful animal, he wants to tell you — part remorsefully and part anxiously and, OK, maybe a little boastfully — that he feels bad about your imminent experience watching it.
“I apologize,” he told the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival before the screening of the new film, “for what I’m about to do to you.”
That movie, "mother!," comes to theaters from Paramount on Friday after disemboweling audiences at both TIFF and the Venice Film Festival.
This article could synopsize the plot, as newspaper convention dictates should be done in this space. And there are the rudiments to be shared: a young, soulful woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is intent on renovating the country house she shares with her creatively blocked writer-husband (Javier Bardem), when a pair of strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up unannounced.
But extensive plot summary wouldn't capture what "mother!" is about, not really. And besides, it would dilute the power of where the film goes, narratively and thematically and metaphorically; it would bridge too much the gap between viewer expectation and cinematic reality.
So suffice it to say that whatever you ultimately make of “mother!,” you’re unlikely to see a movie with such spiritual and emotional urgency, with such a degree of second-person confrontational intensity, for a long time. Your first thought after watching it may well be: How could a Hollywood studio be doing this?
Your second thought might be: This is Darren Aronofsky, director of "Black Swan" and "Noah" and "Requiem for a Dream," who had Natalie Portman stab herself on a ballet stage and Russell Crowe fight off a Midrashic apocalypse and Jared Leto engage in NC-17-worthy drug use. How could he not be doing this?
On a steam bath of an August day that will soon give way to rain, Aronofsky, in a white T-shirt and dark jeans, is in a Mediterranean restaurant eating lunch. Late the night before, he finished postproduction on the movie, a safe week away from its Venice premiere, and is beginning to emerge into the light of the non-editing world. The restaurant, which he has chosen, is not far from his home in downtown Manhattan. Fittingly, it’s the kind of place that evinces old-school values even amid the flash of gentrification around it; it’s the sort of venue that seems to be many things at once.
“Is this a horror movie or a psychological thriller or a home-invasion film? All of those are good,” he said of “mother!” “But I’m not sure what it is.”
Aronofsky, 48, and his team at Protozoa Pictures have been going nonstop to get the film done. Protozoa is the Brooklyn-based collective he founded with a loose set of company roles: His longtime business partner Scott Franklin, for instance, makes stuff happen on the ground and in the halls of power, while Harvard classmate Ari Handel serves as more of a creative producer and conceptual force.
Ditto, for that matter, their loose set of creative rules. “When people ask what Darren is looking for and wants to do next it’s always hard to say one thing,” Handel later said by phone. “I think the one ingredient the projects all have in common is that [they haven’t] been done before.”
Handel sometimes writes with Aronofsky. But the filmmaker wrote this one himself.
Two summers ago, Aronofsky found himself alone in his Manhattan town house for a long holiday weekend. Struck by inspiration, and by anger about the environmental and moral state of the world, he began writing. And writing. He describes it as a kind of fever state, of little food or sleep, a contrast to his years of chiseling and tweaking most of his other scripts, often with a partner. Not long after he had about 70 pages down. Cameras were rolling basically within the year.
What happens in “mother!” is too unexpected and crazy to be believed, and even that feels like too much of a reveal because now you'll be waiting for the crazy and unexpected. Perhaps the most accurate statement that could be made of the film without giving anything away is that it's not what you think it is, which is to say it's grander, deeper, bigger than any movie dressed like a country-house horror movie and/or marital chamber piece. There are numerous metaphoric readings, including a touchstone one heavily hinted at by Aronofsky. Once you see the film through that last lens, it's impossible to unsee it, though there will be those who choose to view it all differently.
What is undeniable is the film’s environmental message: a flaming warning of what is being done to the world.
“I think it's the issue of our time,” Aronofsky said at lunch. “There’s a lot going on [in the news], but it’s all underpinned by the idea that our balance on the planet is for the first time ever in question. I just don’t know how you can escape thinking about this. We’re so devoted to science with our phones, and yet people still deny what’s happening. Look at Houston right now,” he said, referring to Hurricane Harvey. “And I wanted to take that passion and follow its path writing this film.”
Lawrence says she found her reaction to the film’s pages evolving as she moved through them. “And then I got to the third act; I threw the script across the room and texted Darren that he had psychological problems,” she said. “Something was very wrong with him.” His actions, she said, were “brave and really bold, to unleash that kind of assault on the world.”
For those who care about such things, there is a temptation to read “mother!’s” depiction of a romance between a creative person solidly in their 40s and a woman in her 20s as a parable for Aronofsky’s own relationship with Lawrence. But life imitated art, Aronofsky says, who notes that their coupling happened after they finished shooting the movie.
Asked whether his longtime relationship with Rachel Weisz was the inspiration for a woman in love with a man consumed by creative passion. Aronofsky, well, doesn’t deny that the Bardem character could be based on him, or by a fear of who he can sometimes be. But he demurs on the relationship part of the analogy. “It’s not Rachel,” he says. For those who care about such things.
Where the Aronofsky darkness comes from is tough to say. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in south Brooklyn, near the beach, and his parents had solid middle-class jobs like high-school teacher.
Aronofsky still has a clear Brooklyn accent, with its gliding vowels and faintly dropped r’s, and is as likely to reminisce about an ’86 Mets anecdote as he is to invoke filmic references. He began to awaken to cinema's power to create currents like rage or off-kilter originality, he says, when the Spielberg and Lucas linchpins of his early childhood gave way to a discovery of Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch.
“There is sort of like a dissonance between the person Darren is and the films he makes,” said Natalie Portman, who starred in “Black Swan.” He doesn’t seem particularly dark and tortured when you meet him — his movies are expressing this inner side he doesn’t show as a person.”
Aronofsky does, however, have a well-earned reputation for control. Actors tend to use the word uncompromising — code for "many takes" — when describing the director. That could also apply to his interest in owning the process even when Hollywood convention says he shouldn’t. An early marketing image on “mother!” came from his team at Protozoa, catching way off-guard executives at Paramount, who would typically convene and authorize such decisions themselves.
Asked about the move, Franklin said “We did put out the initial image. I don’t know they had a negative feeling,” he added of the studio. “The image was something Darren was passionate about and I think in the end everyone was happy with the outcome.”
Franklin and the Protozoa team view themselves, with some justification, as streetwise outsiders. On-stage at the Toronto premiere, Aronofsky was so surprised by the sight of Franklin and Handel in suits he cracked to them, in front of the whole theater, “You guys look like a couple of bankers.”
The company also convinced Paramount not to test “mother!,” making the argument that there was little to be gained from showing a polarizing movie to unsuspecting preview audiences.
That somehow Protozoa and Paramount got back together in the first place after the famously epic edit-room battles over the big-budget “Noah” is testament to Aronofsky’s vision, Franklin’s persuasion and, perhaps, to the fact that Paramount chief Adam Goodman, an antagonist in that drama, is no longer with the studio.The movie was greenlighted by the late Brad Grey, shortly before he exited his role as Paramount chairman. It also helps that “mother!” only cost about $30 million.
Much of the reason for the lower budget is that the film’s energy source lies not with effects or other tricks (there is no music in the movie) but with the script. Though there are a few big set pieces, and Matthew Libatique’s close-up and hand-held cinematography is notable, what distinguishes the film are the layered meanings of the words themselves. Rarely in this era of big thematic signposts has a movie been so interested in small verbal and visual cues as to what it’s really about, how much is happening subtextually.
Performing that much at once can’t be easy, and Bardem said it wasn’t.
“If you asked me while we were shooting what my character was, I could give you hundreds of answers, and most of them would contradict each other,” the actor said. “But we played all the different instruments, used all those voices, and trusted Darren to take what he wanted.”
Those contradictions, incidentally, are what’s given Aronofsky a reputation among his critics as reaching beyond the point of cohesion. The negative line on him is that he likes the big idea but doesn’t really have it all worked out; they cite “The Fountain” as a prime example.
Aronofsky says that such ambition has always been his oxygen and doesn’t view too many ideas or notes as a problem. Ditto his genre blends.
“I’m not mixing genres consciously,” he said. “I just want to show something different and weird, and genre — or multiple genres — is the entry point for that.”
There is something about “mother!” that feels like a culmination of Aronofsky’s recent work. The film contains the idea of individuals connected to larger events from “The Fountain,” the notion of a woman losing her senses as horror creeps in à la “Black Swan” and, of course, the environmental concerns of “Noah.”
There will be many outside influences noted, especially “Rosemary’s Baby,” but the biggest touchstone might be Luis Buñuel’s surrealist 1962 work “The Exterminating Angel.” Aronofsky and the cast had on-set what they called their “chicken-foot moment,” a reference to a scene from the Buñuel film that signals not all is what it appears to be.
“mother!” also will read differently in this climate. Aronofsky was editing it through the early days of the Donald Trump presidency, and he says that couldn’t but animate his choices. There is something at the heart of “mother!” that is profoundly angry, using an adjective he comes back to several times, but also something sad because of what isn’t being done to address global problems. (Lawrence calls the film “an impotent scream.”) An invite to the premiere in New York this week lists the attire as “dress for a funeral.”
So what will that mean commercially? “I’m scared of the CinemaScore,” Aronofsky said, with a slightly larger hint of glee than the studio might not have. “There will be agony and ecstasy. I don't know who will be interested. People who go in without any sense of allegory will miss it. Which is bonkers, because the film goes off the rails,” he added.
Then he uses a metaphor from his youth to describe how he shaped the movie. “Hopefully it’s a build. It’s the Cyclone roller-coaster, the idea of going slow up that first hill, the anticipation of the rush, and then the rush.”
He continued, speaking more broadly. “The idea with all my films is to entertain, to give audiences a journey they haven’t had before. But I want to do it with a subject that makes me passionate. What’s the point if you’re not doing that?”