Get Out: Terror, Tension, and Race in the Modern Horror

The buzz has been on about Get Out since late last year when it was announced that Jordan Peele, award-winning comedian and actor know for the hit comedy series Mad TV and co-creator of Key and Peele, had written and directed his first film, and not only was it a horror, but it carried a message . The hype machine ran rampant with accolades as usual, but this time, it was right. He’s made an excellent horror film that illustrates an everyday fear and paranoia once thought to be exaggerated by most, but now (one would hope) most likely understood by all in today’s politically and racially charged world.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young photographer preparing to spend the weekend with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). They plan to visit her parents out of town, and Chris is concerned because Rose, and her family, are white, and he is black. When she reassures him that her parents will happily accept him into the fold, they head up her family estate. After a jarring experience hitting a deer and dealing with suspicious local police, Chris attempts to keep his cool as he is interrogated by Rose’s parents Missy and Dean Armitage (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) and her strange brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). Things get even more awkward when a yearly party with their old school family friends conveniently takes place during their weekend visit.

Chris feels not only alienated and scrutinized during his time with Rose, her family, and their white friends, but also that something isn’t quite right. When his interactions with the extremely odd black house staff Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and a black guest (Lakeith Stanfield) at the party go south, his “spidey” senses tell him all isn’t as it seems at the Armitage gathering.

Get Out bridges horror with a mixture of Hitchcock-style suspense and Twilight Zone weirdness, nailing the daily horrors of being a person of colour navigating a systemically racist society at large. The social commentary was so well done that everyone person of colour can nod their heads as they relate to the micro aggressions in the film that are dealt with daily, in fact, there are many themes I want to touch on, but I’ll try to make each observation brief.

A young African-American man, an anti-everyman who is both feared and envied, as the vessel to convey the current social climate was bold, brilliant and well needed. Not since Night of the Living Dead’s Ben (Duane Jones) and that film’s supposed accidental social commentary during the Civil Rights era have we seen such a memorable character. Chris embodies the aspirations of every young Black man and woman who just wants to live unafraid and with all the same opportunities afforded to everyone else in the country touted as “the land of the free”. It’s a heavy load to bear, but Kaluuya plays the character to a “T”. I first saw him as a teenager in a British series called The Fades, where he played the best friend of a boy who had supernatural powers. Kaluuya was hysterically funny then, and his humour has matured with his portrayal of Chris that dripped with irony, while capturing the sincerity and sensitivity of a young man at odds with his acceptance in a literal and figurative sense. I also thought it was clever to make Chris a photographer as we see through his literal lens and point of view. Chris’s friend Rod (LilRey Howery) creates comic relief not to be missed as he personifies Chris’s inner voice telling it like it is. He’s a throwback to the “Black person in a horror film” joke. I was also thrilled to see Erika Alexander from the 90’s sitcom Living Single as the detective Rod tries to enlist for help.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris

I thoroughly enjoyed the Armitages as well. Keener and Whitford played the slightly off liberal parents with a subversive finesse, bringing to light Peele’s skill at writing them with a complexity that is not often expressed properly. Here, they represented the ingrained ignorance of whites as they assert their supremacy over people of colour without any thought to the person in front of them. It’s a brilliant display of how intent is often masked with a cloak of inclusivity, but only on their terms. While a generalization of White society, it also embodies how Blacks, and people of colour in general, have to pick our battles daily while struggling to keep and define our identities at the same time.

Peele’s use of an interracial relationship as the vehicle for his premise is a no-brainer. Where else can you question your place in society than with two people taking a chance and presenting themselves in the world as they defy archaic social norms? It plays on the paranoia, defensiveness and potentially hidden agendas for those involved in interracial relationships.

Chris and Rose

Lastly, the film is visually simple and clean, with nice camerawork and set design that stood out as effective signifiers of old money and privilege. He also treated Chris’s loss of control with dream-like sequences that were some of my favourite scenes and reminded me of the underrated Under the Skin.

Jordan Peele succeeds in giving us a smart, well-written thriller/horror filled with a great balance of tongue-in-cheek humour and a viscerally intense uneasiness. Without giving away spoilers, he captures the need for the incessant and historic commodification, exploitation and abuse of African-American lives (literally and figuratively) with no consequence felt by those exploiters in this supposedly “post-racial” world. See Get Out and discuss how it makes you feel with everyone you can. Perhaps a film created in a genre that is not usually accepted about a historically ostracized/demonized/shunned yet culturally mined people can open the doors to some sort of social justice, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll see the face of mainstream horror (and film at large) change.

(Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie)

The OA – A Modern Day Peter Pan

The wait is finally over. Part 2 of The OA will air on Netflix March 22nd and I couldn’t be happier. This strange show left us hanging with a dramatic ending and lots of questions, and I’ve been obsessed with a theory about it for a long time, so my hope is for answers and more intrigue in a few weeks.

There’s been lots of speculation on The OA. Created by Brit Marling, who plays the protagonist Prairie/The OA, and her director Al Batmanglij, it tells the story of a woman who comes back to her family after a lengthily disappearance, once blind and now with her vision restored as well as an unbelievable tale to tell. There have been countless theories (even ones comparing it to Stranger Things which is a stretch in my opinion), including obvious references to the classics like Homer blatantly pointed out in the series, and religious overtones-The OA stands for Original Angel-but I feel the show is connected to Peter Pan. It may sound absurd, but many instances in the narrative echo the classic story of a boy who never grows up and his many adventures in Neverland. While the similarities aren’t obvious or linear, shadows of this classic book and play with Pan typically portrayed by a woman, take Prairie from an innocent to a captive; then to a lost soul, and finally a powerhouse of belief and faith, a theme that also runs through Peter Pan.

The show starts in Russia with Nina, a girl raised by her wealthy and doting gangster father who teaches her important life lessons about survival and trust. When she is a victim in a terrible bus accident, she experiences a near death experience and meets a mysterious entity, Khatun (Hiam Abbass), who gives her a choice of living beyond the earth or going blind so she can stay with her father in the mortal world. She chooses the later because she loves her father dearly and can’t imagine being separated from him. When she is well enough, he sends her to the U.S. to keep her from his shady lifestyle and also to attend a prestigious boarding school for the blind. After her father is reported dead, his sister-in-law takes in Nina, but it isn’t an easy life for the little girl as her aunt is involved in prostitution and baby trafficking.

Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige) wait for a child to bring home.

An older couple, Abel and Nancy (Scott Wilson and Alice Krige), intent on adopting an infant boy from Nina’s aunt see Nina and fall instantly in love with her, taking her home instead. She lives a good life with them until she starts to have premonitions and episodes that doctors feel require medication. As Nina, now called Prairie, gets older, she still has premonitions that lead her to believe her father is still alive. On her 21st birthday, she decides to leave her parents to search for him. It is on this journey she meets a Dr. Hap (Jason Isaacs) who holds a sinister purpose for her. He befriends her and takes her to his secluded, underground laboratory where she and his other handpicked captives are forced to physically die in order to document the “other side” or a life after death dimension for him. She is released 7 years later by Dr. Hap, and returns home to her adoptive parents with her vision intact. Determined to find her fellow captives and rescue them from Dr. Hap, she enlists an unlikely group of high school misfits and their teacher to help her. She must get them to believe her story of captivity and travel to other dimensions, as well as teach them five “movements” that will transport her so she can rescue her captive friends.

Prairie/The OA (Brit Marling) and Dr. Hap (Jason Isaacs)

By now, I imagine you’re scratching your head over the Peter Pan connection, but stay with me.

Peter Pan first comes to us in a book written by J.M. Barrie in 1911. This well-known character is a boy who flies away from his parents when he discovers he is part bird, going on many adventures. When he returns home, his parents have another child, and feeling unwanted, he flies away for good. He is the boy who never grows up and after his many travels and adventures, he loses his shadow in the home of Wendy, Michael and John Darling, three siblings whom Peter befriends. He wants a mother for his band of Lost Boys, and when he sees Wendy, takes her and her brothers to Neverland where he and his clan lives. It’s there that Wendy becomes a mother figure for the wayward boys and goes through many a trial and tribulation, from almost dying to being captured by the nasty Captain Hook. When she decides that she should bring herself and her brothers home, Peter Pan is against it, but seeing how sad Wendy’s mother has become without her children, reluctantly opens the very bedroom window he first flew through so they can all return home, including their newly found family the Lost Boys.

Broadway star Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan.

Now for the connections. My first clue was the fact that The OA, or Prairie, required her group of misfits to keep their doors open when she met with them for her nightly sessions to tell her tale, just like Peter Pan needed an open window to visit at night. The five people she gathers for her rescue mission are indeed a mixed bag, a set of lost souls that would fit right in with Pan’s Lost Boys. They each search for a purpose, and like the Lost Boys, they are either forgotten or misunderstood, trying to find something to believe in such a bleak environment.

The OA and her band of Lost Boys.

The second clue comes with Prairie/The OA’s disappearance. While she is not a child like Peter Pan when he disappears, she still returns feeling like an alien in her old world. She comes back as The OA with some childlike qualities, as if she has never grown up, and like Peter Pan, they no longer fit in the “real world”. Her spirit guide, Khatun, gives her a bird to swallow, imparting special powers to Prairie/The OA in order to help the other captives. When she returns from Khatun with this new power, there is a world-weariness to her that resembles maturity more familiar with Wendy than Peter Pan. She tells her five cohorts stories about her captivity and her life, much like Wendy tells stories to the Lost Boys and mothers them. She feels an obligation to find her fellow captives so they can escape Dr. Hap, who is her Captain Hook. But soon, the Wendy role is taken on by another character, Betty Broderick Allen (Phyllis Smith), the eldest of Prairie/The OA’s crew and teacher at the school the young misfits attend. She reluctantly tends to them when they aren’t with Prairie/The OA, offering advice when she isn’t dealing with her own issues and heartbreak.

My third clue lies in the fact that Prairie/The OA avoids being touched and can “fly” between dimensions just like Peter Pan. She can also be just as disruptive much like the traditionally mischievous and arrogant figure of Peter Pan, finding herself in dilemmas by trying to help her band of misfits, like an attempt to stop one of her five cohorts from being expelled. She can be seen as leading the younger participants astray as she recounts her adventures and teaches them the mysterious movements to return to the lab and the afterlife.

Clue number four? The show is filled with psychopomps. A psychopomp is a guide for the dead to reach their destination, found in many a mythology and religion like the Egyptian god Anubis, and the Archangel Michael. In The OA, we have Khatun, Prairie/The OA’s guide, who could also be Tinkerbell; Prairie/The OA herself, and the five captives of Dr. Hap as they make their way in the afterlife or Neverland. Peter Pan is also known as a psychopomp since he was believed to guide dead children to heaven. If psychopomps are guides, then they can also open doors. Both Peter Pan and Prairie/ The OA represent death and an entryway into another dimension. It is mentioned that Pan can “imagine things into existence and create windows and doors” just like Prairie/The OA perfects the five movements in order to transport herself to help her captive friends. It’s interesting to note too that each one of Dr. Hap’s captives sees a different afterlife. Neverland is also different according to the person who experiences it. Furthermore, if the lab is the place or vehicle to access Neverland, then Dr. Hap is most certainly Captain Hook, with his obsession to find the truth of life after death. Are the other dimensions like Captain Hook’s crocodile, elusive and dangerous; an unseen menace just out of reach in Dr. Hap’s research of the afterlife?

The OA and a doorway to Khatun.

The final clue lies in the finale. Peter Pan is all about the power of belief, from the moment he leads the children away to Neverland, to that pivotal moment when he calls on the dreamers of Neverland to revive Tinkerbell. Without giving away spoilers, the last episode of The OA spoke to me as I saw the five teens connect on faith alone to help Prairie/The OA realize a premonition. I felt a wave of emotion, actually moved to tears because in that moment I saw that we are all looking for our purpose; to believe in something that fuels our will to live, create, and love.

My Peter Pan obsession is just one of many theories floating around out there, and I might be way off base, but I really love how this strange and very different show makes us think outside the box. So, while we try to figure out the mysteries of The OA, the next chapter nears, bittersweet because last October we lost the brilliant Scott Wilson who played Prairie/The OA’s father Abel. It would be a comfort to know he is at peace in the afterlife as I sit, with my window open, for the next leg of Prairie/The OA’s quest to find her lost companions in Dr. Hap’s ominous Neverland.

 

Longing and Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch is an interesting man.  I don’t claim to be an expert on him by any means, but  films like Stranger Than Paradise and The Limits of Control left me loving the feel and scope of his vision, getting an almost artistic buzz after watching them.  My favourite Jarmusch film hands down is Ghost Dog:  The Way of the Samurai.  This quiet film brings a sense of beauty and zen to the assassin, and he does the same for the vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is an innovative musician who is also a reclusive vampire.  He lives in a secluded, tear-down of a house in the tear-down city of Detroit, and with the help of a human Ian (Anton Yelchin) for music supplies, and a jumpy hospital lab tech (Jeffery Wright) for his blood supply, he is able to exist with little disturbance.  Melancholy seems to rule his life of late, making him contemplate his existence and his disdain for humans, or “zombies” that are destroying the world.  Eve (Tilda Swinton) is his wife and at the moment, she lives in Tangiers.  She is a sensual being, soaking up books and atmosphere, and seems to be content with getting “the good stuff”, or choice blood, from non other than the 16th century poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe himself (John Hurt), who has survived the ages as a vampire.  They are all satisfied with sipping their blood from tiny sherry glasses because they are far too civilized to hunt their human meals.  After a disturbing video chat with Adam, Eve comes to Detroit to check in on him. Adam and Eve appear to the outsider as the coolest junkie couple you will ever meet, wearing shades at night to shroud themselves from the everyman.  They are the ones that if you engage, you just may be in a heap of trouble, but their seduction is irresistible.   They proceed to chill out in true vamp style and live an introvert’s dream; reading, debating philosophy, playing music, getting their blood fix and sleeping in a heap like sophisticated feral junkie children, until Eve’s bratty sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up, throwing a wrench in their well oiled machine of solitude.

Sound boring?  Perhaps a tad Anne Rice-y and formulaic?  Well it’s not.  Jarmusch is known for making films of a slower, more contemplative pace and what he creates here is a sweeping and moody anti-horror movie.  With a beautiful colour palette and the comfort of cluttered sets, he wraps you in a cocoon of an introverted, isolated world that only the characters and the viewers understand. But make no mistake.  There are plenty of intellectual inside jokes and lots of dry humour that still makes this a classic Jarmusch film.

His “casting” of Detroit as a backdrop was genius for this particular story.  It mirrors the life the vampire couple used to have, a life of innovation and progress that becomes antiquated as the world forgets and moves on.  Adam has fans that seem to personify the hipster fueled gentrification, a tainted blood that tries to pump life into an ancient body.  It’s a world where the “zombies” defile artifacts of a glorious past.  Pay attention to the scoring too, but not only because Jarmusch wants you to.  The director and musician creates Adam’s spacey compositions with his band SQURL, and the action is accented by the beautifully enchanting and dreamy sounds of the lute from composer Jozef van Wissem, who won best score for the film at Cannes in 2013.

And I must talk about Tilda Swinton.  I think you all know how much I love her.  She is like a gorgeous alien who can morph into any character.  From her style to her attitude, she is truly mesmerizing.  Her waifishly sleek Eve was calm and calculating; glowing on the screen like an alabaster phantom.  Tom Hiddleston was lazily lethal and brooded with a Jim Morrison-esque intensity, and I loved the reference to Christopher Marlowe, whom John Hurt played so well.  Honourable mention goes to Anton Yelchin as Ian, who exuded a sweet naivety and obedience that amplified Wasikowska’s predatory and petulant Ava.  The costuming and sets were beautifully done, from the rock star vampire tousled hair to the retro-modern wardrobe; from Eve’s walk-up in Tangiers to Adam’s old school recording studio complete with beautiful vintage guitars and a faded red velvet divan fit for any aging rock star, and all of this captured by D.O.P. Yorick Le Saux who meticulously frames each scene to give us precise shots that are pleasing to the eye.  This is a thinker’s vampire film, with nary a CGI effect, save for some fangs and fast hands.  If you want to step outside of the typical  vampire box, I’d suggest Ganja and HessKiss of the Damned, and Only Lovers Left Alive for an interesting triple feature to experience indie vampirism at it’s best.

As someone who has had to examine her own mortality more than once due to very unfortunate circumstances, Only Lovers Left Alive was very poignant for me.  Their desire to stay under the radar and not bring any attention to themselves as life marches on is betrayed by an ultimate longing, bringing them together to steel against an impending doom.  When faced with the question “Is this all there is?”, Adam and Eve give us solace in knowing that yes, maybe “this” is it, but enjoying the moment before it becomes a memory is our mortal goal.

[Orignally published on Rosemary’s Pixie]

Shudder Exclusive: Kuso the Anti La-La Land

A forest sparkling with fairy dust, it’s woodland floor peppered with what can only be called anus mounds; psychedelic collages of body parts flashing before your eye to an electronic beat; poxy-faced characters in absurd and disturbing circumstances as they struggle through the literal muck of life. That muck, which at first looks like your garden variety sludge, is actually made up of the complexity and randomness of everyday drudgery. All of this can be found wrapped in a psychedelic, comedy/horror package of interconnected segments in the Shudder Exclusive of Kuso, directed by DJ and artistic virtuoso, Flying Lotus aka Steve Ellison.

Kuso opens with a spoken word chorus, or “news pirate” (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) hijacking a news report of an earthquake that has hit Los Angeles, and carries on to various TV spots showing the aftereffects of this seismic event on a motley crew of characters. In Royal, a young man partakes in erotic asphyxiation administered by his loving sister who has a secret. Then we have Smear, with a bullied boy whose mother forces him to eat horrific meals. He is ridiculed in school because of his intestinal discomfort and when he runs away, comes across a magical forest with a feces hungry anus-like creature. There is a woman in a subterranean hell as she searches for her baby in Sock, and finally Mr. Quiggle takes us on a journey of another woman who deals with her dating dilemma and her “trans-dimensional” monster roommates, and a man who seeks radical treatment for his fear of breasts.

What we have here is, to me, a nightmarish commentary on the current social and political climate. The reviews have not been overly receptive to the film, citing the over-the-top gross-out scenarios as too obvious or beyond the reach of comprehension. They have also compared the film to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which makes sense with the bizarre subject matter and body horror. I beg to differ with these reviews for the most part however, because as a person of colour, I see it as a psychedelic, avant-garde and horrific approach to life as a marginalized person.

Avant-garde film, music and comedy is often seen as a white endeavour, but one only has to remember the epitome of avant-garde art, Jean-Michel Basquiat; the afro-futurist movement with Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who plays “Dr. Clinton” with his bowel motivated treatments); the cyber-punk gore fests of Japanese horror; the musical DNA from Flying Lotus’s grand-uncle legendary saxophonist John Coltrane; and the decades of spoken word poetry based in the bebop/hip-hop arena to realize this is untrue. Snobbery would consider the latter to be merely a symptom of the “urban” experience with popular music and art of today, but dig deeper and you’ll find modern observations on life as a marginalized or Black person in continually trying times, like the thought-provoking news pirate chorus at the start and end of the film. This is why the Black director and cast composed of mostly people of colour is so important. It shows that we too have a sensibility for the avant-garde, perhaps even more so since some of our real-life experiences can be surreal and literal representations in modern film can often be too painful to watch.

Each sore-riddled character in the vignettes lives on the fringe of society in their filthy abodes. They are the antithesis of the meet-cute, rom-com story, the absent father tearjerker or the mild-mannered guy overcoming his fears. Dialogue in the film mimics formulaic scripts like the intimate, after-sex talk between lovers or the awkward comedy between strangers that just may become friends, and characters sport grotesque skin eruptions instead of picture perfect skin, making the film an abomination of the squeaky-clean Hollywood crank that the masses are addicted to or sick of. That this earthquake takes place in L.A. isn’t unusual, in fact, it is most telling as this is the very place that ideals of how we should live are created even though many a civil unrest has taken place there. In the current climate where racial tensions and turmoil are coming to a head, the earthquake has pushed the build-up of all the white-washing and cover-ups to the surface, spewing forth the discontent, anxieties, fears and truths of the ignored and gagged masses, much like the pus, semen and feces that bubbles from Kuso’s characters.

Although we are now in the internet age, the use of television is so important in this film. One story leads to another from endless screens of all-seeing eyes in each household, illustrating how TV has become a part of everyday life, an extension of ourselves; guiding us in what we should be doing or consuming and feeding us edited and suspect news stories. It is still one of the most powerful electronic mediums in society today as Marshal McLuhan once prolifically predicted, and Hollywood has always been the defining force in what we consume, being the makers of the messages sent through these electronic mediums. When that message is continually manipulated, distorted and upended in no uncertain terms, we must reprocess what is shown to us, which is what Kuso attempts to do.

Incest and general foulness aside, I have only two issues with Kuso. One is with the Mr. Quiggle segment involving the woman “B” (rapper The Buttress) who realizes she’s pregnant and is treated like trash by her two furry TV screen faced roommates played by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. These fantastical creatures whip excrement at her and belittle her every chance they get. While her exchanges with them are meant to be comedic, there is an underlying misogyny that can’t be missed as well as the suggestion that she has been date raped by her stalker Phil, played by comedian Tim Hiedecker. His usual Adult Swim-Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! blank-faced delivery gave this story a more disturbing turn even though “B” brushes the incident off. She is also questioned about her decision to get an abortion at the Coathanger Clinic by Manuel (Zack Fox), even thought she says that it’s her body and her right. While she is tough and holds her own with her male counterparts and her stalker does get his comeuppance, it’s a hard reminder of the struggles women endure in the real and surreal comic book world.

The other is a sign spotted in the Coathanger Clinic “B” and Manuel visit, advertising a vaccine for “N*ggapox” with a smiling white face. I will go on record to say that I will never, ever get used to hearing the “N” word, even if it’s used between Blacks and in almost every hip-hop song and Tarantino film out there, but this sign in the clinic made me stop for a moment. It seemed to be a joke, but I wondered if a deeper meaning could imply removing Blackness from society; inoculating us from the Black struggle so we can all live in oblivion and denial, or even removing it from whites who have, perhaps according to their peers, become too ingrained and involved with Black culture. I could be over thinking it, but the few gasps I heard from the mostly white audience at the screening when the camera focused on that sign gave me pause.

There is also a strong pornography element throughout the film, from flashing imagery and TV commercials to full on ejaculate, and even a cameo from porn actor Lexington Steele. Flying Lotus was interviewed by the Guardian, and he mentioned growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he says “all the porn comes from”, making it a sort of background din for him. He manages to create this feeling of overconsumption with clips of body part collages made of magazines cut-outs undulating to catchy electronic beats that is seamlessly erotic, surreal and absurd at the same time. It desensitizes the viewer at some point, much like the constant battery of airbrushed and perfected bodies plastered before us on a daily basis.

One of the “trans-dimensional” tv monsters in Mr. Quiggle critiques a bizarre porn movie he watches stating that it was “exploitive and sexist though artful”. This along with other statements from the cast like, “I fucking hate this movie!”, is almost a foreshadowing or a mocking of what critics would think once the film was released, and Flying Lotus wasn’t wrong. While some may focus on and denounce the obvious gross-out splatter of Kuso (which is apparently a Japanese word for “shit”) that made people walk out of the 2017 Sundance screening, I challenge viewers to go a little deeper with the insanity. There might be arguments for or against this film as art, and it’s certainly not perfect and will definitely offend with themes of rape, incest and over-the-top sexual content, but it will show you life’s uglier side through fresh eyes, eyes that tire of the La-La Land universe of denial and white-wash.  I caught Kuso at a limited screening in Toronto, but you can now see the real dirt streaming (sorry!) exclusively on Shudder.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]

 

mother! and the Art of Sacrifice

Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!  Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto; and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.

A married couple live in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home; yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem).
Photo credit: IMDb

When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the disturbing nature of the film, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from some earlier discussion during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character only know as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence, but I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the film and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. My final verdict, although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.

There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology PhD students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion.  Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, there is a common thread that shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.

*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*

As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary.  Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors, and I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many an artist or writer wants to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.

Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification that is needed to feed the creativity of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film, and like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but here there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary, in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male, that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored, and when she does have a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons, to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and who treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit is acknowledged but not heeded and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this over and over again, as she sacrifices herself not as a victim but as a martyr and saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.

Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork that was reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective and we witness the action along with her. We were also in the dark with her, getting no clues as the audience, save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.

I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot; a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the word of the writer. Those who know me, know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I had the sense that Mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.

I really can’t tell you how to react to Mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something that is unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]