“mother!” (dir. Darren Aronofsky) – Hell is other people and also you

Poster for "mother!" (2017 film)

After watching Darren Aronofsky‘s complete filmography, if there was any remaining doubt in my mind that he takes a perverse satisfaction in mentally torturing his characters, it’s gone now. Characters aren’t real. They can’t feel anything except what an author feels on their behalf, so to watch their ordeal rendered through the visual, auditory, and acting talents of others is ideally an insider’s look at what the author was experiencing when they wrote it. And if all of these disparate players do that original vision justice, perhaps the audience will understand what it’s like to be that grand auteur – and in so doing, better understand themselves. All of that presumes that art is both forthcoming and self-aware, and this is not always the case. Sometimes, art says as much and more about the time and society in which it is created than about the author’s own proclivities (this is how we come to enjoy light propaganda like American Sniper). Or perhaps the author doesn’t know themselves as well as they think – and their creation is a lens through which to glimpse the truth of that creator, whether or not he understands it himself. I’ll never really know, but I’ve seen enough of Aronofsky’s work to believe I have the measure of the man. Darren Aronofsky is the destroyer of worlds. But with mother!, he is venturing firmly into Lars von Trier territory, destroying a world that I’m not certain was worth creating in the first place.

His latest victim is Grace, a woman played by his real-life romantic partner, Jennifer Lawrence, who is married to a much older, critically acclaimed poet, Eli (Javier Bardem). The couple lives in Eli’s childhood home, which was previously gutted by fire, and which Grace has been expertly renovating ever since the couple got together, while Eli struggles to overcome his writer’s block and write more poetry. His previous work is acclaimed enough to have granted them a comfortable life, but he has long been unable to produce anything new – whether at the writing desk or in the bedroom. Their house is in the middle of an oddly pixelated field and woods, seemingly without a road nearby, and we never see Grace venture past the front porch. The couple’s lackadaisical home life is upended by the arrival of a mysterious unnamed couple, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Harris initially arrives with a story that he had mistaken the house for B&B, and Eli generously offers to let him stay the night. Even as this initial pretext falls away, this will be the first of many times that Eli displays inordinate generosity toward strangers at his wife’s expense (and without even discussing the matter), and it’s honestly one of the most difficult aspects of this film to explain to people who haven’t seen it. Couples routinely disagree, and sometimes make commitments that the other must live up to even if they’d prefer not to. It can be a source of tension, and hopefully the couple works it out. That’s the mundane stuff of family dramedy. This wasn’t that. This was a shared, grandiose delusion of every character in this film besides Grace that everything about this situation is just fine, even as it quickly and destructively escalates. More people arrive, more damage is done, more items are shared, and Grace is persistently the only one reacting like a human being, pushing back, asking questions, and acting genuinely baffled that people are treating her so poorly. She’s not Marge Simpson, dealing with a comedic buffoon. She’s Skyler White, dealing with a sociopath. Her reaction is correct, and everyone else’s is wrong.

After watching how thoroughly Lawrence’s character was abused in Passengers, a film which seemed completely unaware of the reality it was creating and which strove to be a conventional romance, I was nervous going into this one. But Aronofsky’s hand is most deft here when it comes to his treatment of Grace as a character, and Lawrence’s performance is about the only thing that makes the film bearable. Almost without exception, every frame centers on Grace, and the camera floats within just a few feet of Lawrence. This is a mix of over-the-shoulder and in-her-face, creating a cinematic POV that invites the audience to become complicit in its invasiveness. As the viewer, you’re standing too close, facing the wrong way in a stuffy elevator, and the movie is happy to let you linger there. And Lawrence nails this character, even as I struggled with how much to sympathize with Grace as the film goes on. She seizes whatever petty control that she can as her husband laughs and smiles and hikes and drinks and chats with the new arrivals. She grits her teeth and tries her best to ignore Pfeiffer’s character getting day-drunk, interrupting her work, and asking invasive, leading questions about her sex life and plans to have children. She stares back at each fresh outrage, tilts her head, and politely pushes back – even as Lawrence’s beleaguered eyes and increasingly steely voice demand to know why any of this is happening. And the script hands Grace a few fleeting moments of agency in the first act. Harris’ character continuously tries to smoke in the house despite Grace’s admonitions, and she seizes an opportunity as Harris vomits in the bathroom from too much whiskey, shoving his Zippo lighter off the back of a dresser where it won’t be found. After she resolves to throw the couple out once and for all (and Eli is uncharacteristically occupied for a moment), she hurtles their wet laundry – abandoned in the washer for her to finish – onto the floor. These moments sound petty as I summarize them, and this is one of the other things that is hard to explain about this film. Every scene seeks to make Grace bleed from a thousand cuts while whistling a happy tune and saying everything is alright. These minuscule victories are some of the only cathartic moments that the film has to offer, offering meager hints of the inevitable scream that must issue from her mouth before the film is over, if we’re ever to feel anything besides pity for this wretched creature: None of this is okay, and all of these assholes need to leave, now.

Michelle Pfeiffer in "mother!" (2017 film)

Pfeiffer is positively wicked in these scenes, nailing the perfect balance of passive aggression and personal invasion. She’s here to stay at your house for precisely as long as she’d like, and she’d really appreciate it if you’d stop being such an entitled bitch about it, thank you very much. I’m borrowing a bit of the film’s language here, but honestly, it was hard not to think of Lawrence’s own experiences with the public’s invasiveness as I watched what happened to her character (particularly in the third act). And this is where mother! left me torn as to whether it was all worth it, and what it was all for. The film fully embraces its dreamlike storytelling – time lurches forward imprecisely, scenes mash into each other, and the world becomes a living nightmare as Eli gleefully deals with the consequences of his renewed fame and public appreciation. Kristen Wiig briefly appears as Eli’s publisher, in possibly the most disturbing work she has ever done. And as the whole repulsive spectacle unfolded, I lost the thread of precisely what this film was trying to say about the cost of creativity.

It seemed to be dancing on the cusp of three ideas:

  1. Creators must constantly share of themselves to the adoring masses, and in so doing, lose themselves.
  2. The public should probably stop acting like a pack of entitled cannibals and make something of their own.
  3. Creators have a destructive effect on their loved ones, with the fictional worlds that they create inevitably coming from the sublimation, neglect, and destruction of their real lives.

These ideas are all over the place, and for much of the film’s third-act Saturnalia, I found myself wondering whether this was an exercise in self-awareness or egotism on Aronofsky’s part. I haven’t said much about Bardem’s performance here, and that’s for two reasons. First is that Bardem succeeded in making Eli both delightful and repulsive to me – a figure who can conjure up the finest words to promote, justify, and reinforce the most despicable acts that the world has to offer. Second is that I don’t really know how much of an avatar Eli is meant to be for Aronofsky himself. Much of the film’s conflict is over whether or not this couple really cares about each other, as Eli’s persistent neglect of Grace in favor of a gang of strangers is repeatedly justified on the grounds that the experience might help him create more art. Talking with these people, Eli argues, is better than talking to her, because at least they’ve got something novel to say. This is Grace’s lot in this film – not merely the put-upon wife who grapples with her husband’s ingratitude and straying affections, but also a flagging muse, cast against her will as a man’s source of creative light, useless and thrown away as soon as that light has faded. And it doesn’t fade with a wimper. I found myself simultaneously reveling in the film’s excesses and wanting to warn others not to expose themselves to it for the sake of their sanity. This isn’t the best rumination on creativity I’ve seen – not even the best this year. And even while Aronofsky is at the top of his technical craft, I still can’t answer definitively whether his latest exercise in creating, enslaving, and agonizing an innocent woman was really worth it.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

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Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” – Sprawling, epic, and thoughtful

X-Men: First Class had a tall order to fill. We’ve already had two solid films examining the fantastic mutant powers, conflicting ideologies, and disillusioned friendship of Charles Xavier (“Professor X”) and Erik Lehnsherr (“Magneto”). To return to that friendship at its inception could have seemed little more than a cynical cash-grab – a storytelling dead-end whose fan-service ending was a foregone conclusion. Instead, Matthew Vaughn has delivered a film that proves he is as adept at delivering an earnest, character-driven superhero film as he was at superhero parody. This film may or may not be the best in the franchise, but it certainly belongs in the same conversation as X2, and perhaps even The Dark Knight, if not quite ascending to the standalone appeal of those films.

The highest praise I can give to James McAvoy’s take on Charles Xavier is that at no point did I doubt that this man grows up to Patrick Stewart’s version of the character. Tackling a role that has been so completely defined by another actor is a difficult undertaking, and the result is no mere imitation of Stewart’s Xavier, but neither is it a complete reimagining (à la Chris Pine in Star Trek). This Xavier is reserved and wise, but hardly unafraid to use his powers in the reckless milieu of a younger man. In fact, this Xavier is downright arrogant, using his powers to convincingly sweet-talk coeds and other mutants alike, all while playing fast and easy with the most intimate details of their minds and memories. This Xavier might make a fair psychologist, but his approach to friendship is downright invasive. His banter with Erik (Michael Fassbender) ends up striking a note somewhere between therapist and Yoda, trying simultaneously to make the other man come to terms with his most painful experiences and unlock the full potential of his mutant powers. It’s a fascinating interaction, to be sure, and it certainly drives the second half of this film despite being established through a rather hasty montage. I wasn’t sure how much I would buy this friendship, but it cascaded into a brilliant finale. More on this later.

First, I must touch on the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), which is certainly one of the reasons this film belongs in the same conversation as The Dark Knight. Not only is Shaw a thoroughly memorable and well-written nemesis, but he also represents an achievement that few films have managed to accomplish in recent years – an utterly terrifying villain (or set of villains, in this case). Shaw expresses his affinity for Nazi tactics early in the film, and the reason quickly becomes evident. Scene: A tornado spontaneously erupts outside a building, and a guard vanishes in a puff of crimson smoke. He reappears 100 feet in the air, instantly falling to his death. The attrition continues as buildings rip to shreds and it literally starts raining men (hallelujah!).

This is just a snippet of one of the many brilliant action set-pieces, but it demonstrates two of the great strengths of this film. First, it makes full and clever use of the array of mutant powers at its disposal (from heroes and villains alike). And second, Shaw and his associates carry out their malicious plans with such brutal and relentless efficiency that it’s simultaneously horrifying and captivating to behold.

Also terrifying is the man-who-would-be-villain, Magneto. After narrowly escaping the Holocaust (and the brutal experimentation of Shaw), Erik passes a brief stint as a Nazi hunter, ruthlessly pursuing the worst offenders who have fled to Argentina. This plays almost like a sequence from Fassbender’s other best known film, Inglourious Basterds – and the parallels seem fairly deliberate. Fassbender speaks several languages and visits unflinching brutality upon his malefactors. Given that Xavier’s central conflict with Erik is the extent to which they should wage war upon humanity, this makes for a compelling backdrop for their burgeoning friendship later in the film. Xavier’s other relationship – a childhood friendship with Raven, AKA “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence), is quite fascinating at the beginning of the film, but gets short shrift as soon as Magneto enters the picture. Given Raven’s character arc, this seems somewhat deliberate on the filmmakers’ part, but it is unfortunate, given that these early scenes are the best opportunity for Lawrence to show off her acting prowess. Her later interactions with Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are less interesting, even though Beast’s Jekyll-and-Hyde story turns out to be a compelling subplot (or at least a showcase for a brilliant bit of first-person camerawork).

Still from "X-Men: First Class"

There is a host of other characters in this film, which may leave prospective audience members questioning the extent to which this film is just for the fans – suffering from character and villain overload like so many other late entries to a superhero franchise. To that, I would simply say that this film is an achievement in both casting and storytelling. It brings a great many disparate characters together and manages to tell us a little something about each one without leaving the film feeling bloated. And in the end, the mutants – heroes and villains alike – do their dance as the humans look on in terrified awe. The American and Russian observers are then forced to act in a way that doesn’t feel entirely believable, but nonetheless forces Erik Lehnsherr to become the villain that he needs to be. In the blink of an eye, he is Magneto.

And indeed, this is the problem with origin stories. If you’re explaining the origins of something simple, like radioactive spider powers, your explanation can be equally rudimentary. To explain something as complex and multifaceted as Magneto’s decades-long disillusionment with mankind is a bit more difficult. But while such a protracted explanation may have been slightly more believable, I’ll grant that it’s not particularly cinematic. And all of these elements, along with McAvoy and Fassbender’s performances, brought together an action-packed and thematically pitch-perfect finale that felt almost completely earned.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” – Everyone loves a trainwreck – but there are limits

Poster for "The Beaver"

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a severely depressed, self-hating individual who pulls himself back from the brink of suicide and starts talking through a stuffed beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster. This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.

Did I mention Walter has a teenage son? When Porter Black (Anton Yelchin) isn’t selling term papers to his high school classmates or romancing one of his clients (Jennifer Lawrence), he spends his time writing down Post-Its of every one of his similarities to his father, no matter how minute (“Rubs eyebrows”), in staunch determination to eliminate every last one of them before he heads off to college. To this end, he is also planning a contrived roadtrip worthy of Elizabethtown, wherein he will visit locations around the country where “everything changed forever” (such as the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot), in a desperate effort to find himself.

I’ll be blunt – I hated this character. He felt like the worst sort of indie cliché, and I found every moment of his screentime excruciating. By the end of the film, we’re seemingly meant to draw parallels between Porter and his father, but they never quite landed. Apart from some apparent OCD, Porter seems a great deal more high-functioning, intelligent, and capable than Walter. While it’s certainly possible that he might slip into a depressed and self-destructive state, the film never really shakes the feeling that no matter what happens, this kid will be just fine. Yelchin’s performance is acceptable, but the character just feels sloppily and unbelievably written.

Still from "The Beaver"

In fact, suspension of disbelief is one of the hardest things about watching The Beaver – this story never quite feels like it could take place in the real world. Porter’s subplot took up nearly half of the film and felt like a complete distraction, and Walter’s story also felt unfocused. While I could accept the absurd degree to which Walter’s family and colleagues accepted his newfound puppetry, his rapid ascendence to fame over a nationwide craze of…children’s woodchopping kits (?) was just too much of a stretch, and felt completely out of place amid the dark family drama that was brewing.

Jodie Foster (also the film’s director) gives a heartbreaking performance as Walter’s wife Meredith – she and Gibson have always had impressive chemistry together, and this film tests it to destruction. In one of the film’s best scenes, the couple goes out to dinner for their 20th anniversary – without spoiling how it ends, I will say that it was physically uncomfortable to watch, and that it was an impressive showcase of both acting and direction.

Porter’s love interest, Norah (Lawrence) gives a rather unsettling speech near the end of the film, ostensibly spelling out its message – maybe everything’s not going to be okay, but at least we’ve got each other. The tone of this speech was as dark as the rest of the film, but as a moral of this somber tale, it somehow works. The Beaver is a deeply flawed, but profoundly affecting film. I can’t say I especially welcomed its effects, but it may be a fascinating character piece for those who have suffered from depression (or their loved ones) – those who know the loneliness that can engulf these individuals even when they’re surrounded by people who desperately want to help.

The Beaver may strain credulity, but its raw sentiment feels real and tragic. That said, it’s not a film I would comfortably recommend to anyone.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

2010 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actress

#5: Annette Bening – Nic, The Kids Are All Right

This film didn’t quite do it for me, and reminded me that I sometimes have to catch myself from thinking that the best performances of the year will invariably fall within the best films. But while Lisa Cholodenko’s sex comedy/family drama was not without its flaws (particularly in the second half), Annette Bening’s performance as the conservative “patriarch” of this surprisingly* conventional family was immaculate. She completely sold her ever-changing reactions to the introduction of her kids’ birth-father (Mark Ruffalo), treating him first like a looming threat to her primacy, then laughing and drinking wine with him and the family. This is a completely authentic character, and Bening’s delivery of dramatic outbursts and comedic barbs alike was spot-on. Her chemistry with Julianne Moore felt mostly believable – it had a kind of comfort and ease, just like an old married couple.

She also completely nails the best two lines in the film, which I won’t spoil here.

*By the standards of quirky indie film, that is.

#4: Carey Mulligan – Kathy, Never Let Me Go

I’ve seen Carey Mulligan play cheerful, but I’ve seen her play somber much more frequently. While I may eventually reach a point of wanting to see a wider range from this actress, I found every dour moment of her screentime in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go to be completely compelling. This film relied heavily on tone, and Mulligan’s performance and chemistry with her fellow leads (Keira Knightley in particular) helped maintain the film’s bleak and somber atmosphere without ever letting the audience lose emotional touch with the characters. These are wretched and pitiable creatures, and it is Mulligan’s heart and compassion that keeps the audience caring for them right to the end.

#3: Hailee Steinfeld – Mattie Ross, True Grit

An early scene in True Grit features Mattie Ross in hardball negotiations with a stable owner over her late father’s horses. Her unrelenting performance amid rapid-fire dialogue in this scene would have been enough to get 13-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld a supporting nod from me, but the Academy be damned – this is unquestionably a lead performance. Steinfeld is in every scene of True Grit, and the film could not have succeeded without such a mature and charismatic take on this character. Mattie Ross is articulate, intimidating, and a bit of a gadfly, and has to keep up with powerful characters three times her age without ever overstaying her welcome with the audience. It’s a tall order, but Steinfeld completely pulls it off. Her rapport with Jeff Bridges was admirable, treading some fascinating ground between road-trip comedy and an intense father-daughter bond. This film is a delight, and it owes much of its appeal to Steinfeld.

#2: Natalie Portman – Nina Sayers, Black Swan

The effectiveness of Nina Sayers is in both her initial state- the pure and fragile “sweet girl”- and her incredible mental and physical transformation. Natalie Portman not only sold both aspects of the character, but fearlessly committed to all the pain and revulsion – bordering on body horror – that she must experience. Portman’s chemistry and frightful interactions with her fellow players (Barbara Hershey in particular) become increasingly fascinating as Nina descends into full-blown schizophrenic madness. Along with Aronofsky’s direction, this was a performance that would make or break the film, occasionally even compensating for deficits in the screenwriting.

“I’M the Swan Queen!” screams Nina as she embarks on the film’s final performance. And indeed she is. Embodying both the white and black swans, Portman’s performance is complete and unmatched.

#1: Kim Hye-ja – Mother, Mother

It is a rare movie tagline that so adequately captures the tone of a film. For Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, it was this: “She’ll stop at nothing.” Simple and straight to the point. Kim Hye-ja, an actress primarily from Korean television, gives a tour de force performance as the unnamed titular matriarch. Every one of her character beats rang completely true, from her constant worry about her mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin) to her utter desperation to clear his name for murder. She goes to some alarming lengths as the film goes on, and Kim’s performance completely sold each one of her increasingly heartbreaking decisions. The gorgeous opening scene features Kim breaking into an uneasy dance in the middle of the field, with a very pained expression in her face and body language. The full meaning of this scene becomes apparent later in the film, but from the outset, it is clear that Kim Hye-Ja can convey a great deal of emotion in completely unspoken terms. This is a character that the audience wants the best for at all times, no matter what she becomes.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as Ree in Winter’s Bone
  • Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Emma Stone as Olive Pendergast in Easy A
  • Marisa Tomei as Molly in Cyrus
  • Julianne Moore as Jules in The Kids Are All Right (Honorable, honorable mention: as Catherine Stewart in Chloe)

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” – A masterful dose of guns, guts, and gloom

Winter’s Bone is the tale of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough-as-nails 17-year-old girl who must track down her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father in the Missouri Ozarks before he misses his court date and forfeits his bail – the family home she shares with her two younger siblings. Out of that simple, high-stakes premise comes one of the most bleak and memorable thrillers I’ve seen since Gone Baby Gone. Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough shoot the film with an utterly drab color palette, the Missouri gloom cloaking every frame in a desaturated blue-gray haze. The film’s atmosphere is one of utter hopelessness and yet through it all, Ree remains, frankly, a tough bitch. Relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (who bears quite a resemblance to Renee Zellweger) turns in a powerful and unflinching performance. As Ree interrogates one uncooperative subject after another amid social obstacles and resistance from even her own family, Lawrence delivers every line of back-country Missoura slang with remarkable authenticity.

“You’ve always scared me,” says Ree.

“That’s because you’re smart,” gruffs John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle, the inexplicably-named Teardrop. Hawkes, an actor who I’d only previously seen playing wiry, semi-geeky characters, was easily the biggest surprise in this film, completely matching Lawrence’s intensity. His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.

Winter's Bone still

Also intimidating is Merab (Dale Dickey), one of the first characters Ree questions, who offers her tea and then advises with precipitous hostility to “Go home, child.” The stakes of this scene were driven higher by their ambiguous blood relation, and indeed, the film presents the conflicting familial and social allegiances amongst these characters as central to Missouri culture. They were also utterly unintimidated by guns or guts, which were ubiquitous throughout the film. As an ignorant, lazy, metrosexual coastal-dweller, I can’t speak to how accurate this depiction may be, but the characters and culture felt completely authentic. Also central to the film is “meth culture”, of which we’ve already seen a gritty, stylized version in AMC’s “Breaking Bad”; but while the medium of television grants that show the freedom of rich world-building over a long period, the greatest strength of Winter’s Bone is just how rich, believable, and utterly bleak a world it manages to craft within its runtime. And while the trailer-park drug production and rampant availability of methamphetamine are merely a backdrop to the overall mystery of this film, they manage to add yet another layer of bleakness and tension.

This indie thriller kept me fearing for its characters at every turn. The screenplay, adapted from a Daniel Woodrell novel by director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini, is immensely taut with its dialogue. The characters say everything they need to say, and not a single word more. The direction and pace is fantastic, evoking shades of the Coen Brothers (it reminded me at times of both Fargo and No Country).

“You’ve paid for this in blood,” a character tells Ree toward the end. And indeed, if this film has a central theme, it is blood. How it binds or separates us, how easily it is disregarded, and what we might do to protect it. Lawrence and Hawkes’ intense performances guide the audience masterfully through this simple, effective thriller, and make it well worth the price of admission.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10