by Jonathan Schumann
(This week, Jonathan Schumann returns to Arts and Leisure to review Mother! Jonathan, who shared this column with his dad, Mark Schumann, from 1999 to 2006, now lives in New York City.)
Ugh. How do you solve a problem like Mother!, the new film from filmmaker Darren Aronofsky? And even more challenging, how do you write about it without giving away its many twists and turns? I hesitate to say “plot twists and turns” as there isn’t much plot to speak of. So, buckle up.
A nameless man (Javier Bardem) and woman (Jennifer Lawrence) live in what seems to be bucolic splendor in a charming fixer upper. He seems to be some sort of writer, she seems to be more of a homebody. What feels like a set-up for a new HGTV series takes an unexpected turn when a strange man (also nameless, played by Ed Harris) arrives at the door late one night. Bardem is welcoming, Lawrence is suspicious.
The next day, the man’s wife arrives in the glorious form of Michelle Pfeiffer who should appear in more movies. How great to see this luminous actress working on a big screen. And let’s be clear. The only reason I’m giving this movie even a single bucket (and not what would be an unprecedented zero buckets) is because of Pfeiffer’s vampy, campy turn. Unfortunately, it’s a small role. And, when she leaves, I wanted to follow her to whatever narrative she was exiting to, a late 80s Aaron Spelling soap, no doubt. This pair of unexpected arrivals leads to more uninvited guests, and a menacing spiral of events that builds to a catastrophic end.
That’s about as much as I can say without giving too much of the “plot” away. Not that I’m entirely sure what happened or what it means. Much has been written about what the film’s loose story and archetypes might represent. Is it about climate change? Is it a biblical allegory? Is it a cautionary tale about the pratfalls of fame? Perhaps a Rosemary’s Baby homage for the Trump era? To be honest, I have no idea. I love allegory. I love filmmakers breaking the rules and experimenting and disrupting the status quo. But there’s not enough here to go on. It may all make sense in Aronofsky’s mind, but he doesn’t pull the curtain back far enough to let us in. And a filmmaker this complex needs, at times, to help translate what he’s thinking.
To be clear, Aronofsky’s skills as a visual storyteller continue to amaze. The camerawork and narrative point of view here are stellar. But superior craftsmanship can’t make up for a hollow story. I will offer props to Paramount for funding this disaster. In an increasingly cautious filmmaking landscape, few studios are willing to fund original stories. And, though this one fails, the fact that it was made in the first place is a good thing.
Streaming Pick: Black Swan
This Aronofsky film does a much better job of balancing absurd, camp elements with a coherent narrative flow. The movie — about a ballerina who is totally losing it — works because of its grounding in the reality of Lincoln Center and rich characters brought to life by actors doing superior work. Barbara Hershey and Vincent Cassel are great in supporting roles, but the film belongs to Natalie Portman, doing her best work ever (and Oscar agreed).
Mother! is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language. The film runs 2 hour, 1 minute, and is showing in local theaters. 1 Popcorn Bucket. Want to read more about films by Darren Aronofsky? Check the Reel Dad at Arts and Leisure online at hersamacorn.com.
Aronofsky makes us think with The Wrestler
By Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
As he tries to do Mother!, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky makes us think with his 2008 film, The Wrestler. Unlike his latest film, however, The Wrestler creates its impact through the development of characters that make sense in a narrative that never lets up.
The lead character Aronofsky’s powerful film could be working in any profession. He could be, in fact, anyone who formerly enjoyed a spotlight, commanded a crowd, attracted fans. That he steps into a wrestling ring to do his work is incidental; the event is simply a metaphor for how a world can treat those it considers has-beens. And the lessons the film offers can be meaningful to anyone.
When released, the film attracted a lot of attention, for good reason, for the striking work of Mickey Rourke in the title role. But the value of The Wrestler reaches beyond any one performer. This is a beautifully written and directed character study of a man who tries to reinvent his life when he is no longer able to do the work for which he has trained all of his life. That he has better days behind him gives him history, but does not make him pitiful. When this man steps into his ring, he knows who is, and what his work involves. He’s just not prepared for it to be taken away from him.
The Wrestler opens with “Randy Ram” as he does a good night’s work on the professional wrestling/intense performing circuit. Nothing seems off limits in the effort to excite an audience and, in two brutal sequences, we are shown just how far these performers will go to entertain. Unfortunately, Randy forgets his age, and the damage he has done to his body over the years, and suffers a heart attack. The film focuses on his efforts of rehabilitation, physical and emotional, as he strives to carve a life that can thrive outside the rink.
Unfortunately, for Randy, as for many professionals who have focused on their careers, the relationships closest to them have given way to other priorities. So when he tries to reconnect with his long-lost daughter, beautifully played by Rachel Evan Wood, he experiences the pain of many a parent trying to reach out. And when he tries to establish a relationship with a dancer in a club, perfectly portrayed by Marisa Tomei, he learns that the charm he conveys when he works doesn’t always work when he lives.
At the center of the film is Rourke who is pitch perfect in every moment. Rarely do we get to see an actor, a role and a director so creatively aligned. Rourke doesn’t perform the part; he is the part; and he is heartbreaking. While much attention initially went to the brutality of the wrestling sequences, the finest moments in the film are the quiet ones, when Rourke’s face and eyes register a despair that reaches off the screen.
The Wrestler is a film that is so good, so lasting, and in other hands could have been so wrong. It turns out Nicholas Cage was originally cast in the lead role. That would have made it a star turn. What adds to the drama on screen is how we know, as an audience, that Rourke is fighting for his professional life, too.
The Wrestler, released in 2008, is Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and drug use. The film runs 1 hour, 49 minutes, and is available online.