No stranger to polarizing films and/or the unsettling subject matter they depict, writer/director Darren Aronofsky has created no shortage of grotesque, gripping, and gruesome visuals during the last 20 years. Many future fans were first introduced to Aronofsky's work via his sophomore film Requiem for a Dream (2000) or even its low-budget predecessor Pi (1998), while later films expanded into more surreal (The Fountain, 2006), psychotic (Black Swan, 2010), or even Biblical territory (Noah, 2014). We even rode shotgun through one curious detour into the brutal, unforgiving world of indie wrestling (The Wrestler, 2008) but, despite these films' wildly varying subject matter, they all share a prickly, often mind-bending atmosphere that's attractive and repulsive to varying degrees. This, of course, leads us to Mother! (2017), a film that trades in the story of Noah's ark for an even more questionable segment of Genesis.
And boy, is it a claustrophobic and challenging ride. Mother! introduces us to a handful of nameless characters: the most prominent are "Mother" (Jennifer Lawrence) and "Him" (Javier Bardem), a couple who lives in a secluded farmhouse. She's been working feverishly to rebuild their home, which we learn was recently damaged by a massive fire, while he struggles to write the poems and stories that have earned him a respectable amount of notoriety. Theirs doesn't appear to be a very intimate relationship; more often than not, Mother slaves away while "The Poet" continually loses his bout with writer's block. Their situation changes drastically once a man (Ed Harris) appears at their door one night, who The Poet invites for an extended stay; he's later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who make themselves all too comfortable while Mother is basically ignored. Things go from bad to worse as new people continue to arrive: the couple's bickering sons (Dohmnall and Brian Gleeson), increasingly rabid fans of The Poet's latest work, his publisher (Kristen Wiig), dozens of unruly mob members, riot police, the military...and finally, Mother and The Poet's baby boy.
A disclaimer: the above synopsis captures very little of what makes Mother! so brutally effective, profoundly disorienting, claustrophobic, and mentally numbing as its small universe devolves into violent chaos. It's obviously sourced from a vague account of the Genesis creation narrative and other segments of competing religions, which include the allegories of "Mother" Earth, God Himself, Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, humanity's downfall, transubstantiation, and other cheery topics for a relaxing weekend watch. Yet the way Mother! has been structured and planned with such obvious care---which includes the memorable farmhouse locale, apparently mapped out to resemble the human brain---makes it a possible revelation worth digging for. That said, I couldn't blame first-timers for hating this one outright: it was more or less marketed as a psychological horror film centering on a home invasion...which is technically is, I guess, but fans of Jennifer Lawrence's more accessible work may recoil as much as Happy Gilmore disciples during Punch-Drunk Love.
Either way, Mother! can't earn more than a standard recommendation: the main feature got under my skin in the best and worst ways, as the occasionally graphic sights and sounds---which normally cripple lesser films in the replay department---are offset by the story's twisting, surreal nature and fantastic production values. It's clearly not for everyone, as evidenced by the film's unwarranted "F" CinemaScore rating and divisive reviews. But despite the fact that people will undoubtedly love or hate Mother! in near-equal measure, the fact that it exists and was released by a major studio is wonderfully reassuring. Like the film's appeal or lack thereof, Paramount's Blu-ray similarly has highlights and handicaps: its A/V presentation is superb, but the bonus features are underwhelming given Mother!'s layered subject matter. In all honesty, I wouldn't be surprised if Criterion snagged it within the next few years.
Considering the film's visual roots are a mix of Super 16mm, digital, and CGI rendered at approximately 2K, Mother! wouldn't seem like the most necessary candidate for Blu-ray---let alone 4K UHD, available separately---but this 1080p transfer serves up a perfectly capable and accurate presentation. Film grain is plentiful but rarely obtrusive, leaving lots of room for strong image detail and textures during frequent close-ups. The film's highly stylized color palette looks good as well, with even color saturation that isn't prone to bleeding. Shadow detail and contrast levels are fairly strong and consistent as well. It should be said, of course, that certain format limitations and stylistic choices prevent Mother! from achieving any sort of objective perfection (whatever that is), but the fact that this Blu-ray offers such an accurate version of difficult source material should be more than enough consolation for fans and first-timers.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
Any film blessed with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack means that it brings something special to the table, and Mother! is no exception. It's been specially mixed with home theaters in mind (and also unfolds to a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track if your receiver doesn't support Atmos), with the resulting audio experience offering no shortage of unsettling effects, creepy atmospheric touches, and crystal-clear dialogue. Director Darren Aronofsky, working with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for the first time, mutually agreed to remove most of the score during post-production; the majority of Mother!'s most emotionally-charged moments instead feature more of an organic soundscape that works extremely well. I'll admit that featuring the original score as an alternate track would've been ideal, but what's where sounds fantastic and really adds to the film's foreboding atmosphere; channel separation is quite dominant, as are several moments featuring heavy uses of low frequency effects. Optional English (SDH) subtitles have been included during the main feature.
The Blu-ray's interface is fairly standard with separate options for chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus features. This two-disc release (one Blu-ray, one DVD) arrives in a regular dual-hubbed keepcase with poster-themed cover artwork---similar to the middle one above, but obviously neutered a bit---and a matching enhanced slipcover. A Digital Copy redemption slip is also inside.
Disappointingly, we only get two short behind-the-scenes featurettes here. "Downward Spiral: The Making of Mother!" (29:52) at least attempts to dig slightly below the surface; it features writer/director Darren Aronofsky, producers Scott Franklin and Ari Handel, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, editor Andrew Weisblum, Jennifer Lawrence, production designer Philip Messina, Ed Harris, and Javier Bardem as they speak briefly about the film's conception, production, and turbulent subject matter, while also showing clips from the unusually long three-month rehearsal sessions in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, "The Makeup FX of Mother!" (6:45) offers a quick chat with makeup designer Adrien Morotand and a glimpse of some of his uniquely disturbing creations including the robotic baby, an exploding head, the toilet monster, and a crumbling ash corpse. These featurettes are obviously better than nothing, but given that most of Aronofky's earlier films arrived with plenty of supplements, the lack of more in-depth material here is unfortunate.
Darren Aronofsky's Mother! is a claustrophobic and challenging fever dream that stands apart from most other films in his career, and that's saying something. It's a highly original and deeply personal film that attracts with mystery and great performances while repulsing with abject cynicism and chaos, undercut by a fully enveloping atmosphere and some of the most unsettling visuals you're likely to see in a major studio film. While Mother! is far from perfect and never quite settles on a tone anywhere between vague and heavy-handed, it's a mesmerizing experience with slightly more replay value than its subject matter might suggest. Paramount's Blu-ray combo pack serves up a top-tier A/V presentation (including a great Dolby Atmos track), but the lack of substantial extras keeps it from earning a higher overall rating. Recommended for established fans and adventurous viewers only; everyone else, steer clear.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.