Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” opens this week and has already generated controversy for its dark topics, campy tone, and for subjecting lead actress Jennifer Lawrence to unnecessary humiliation. But these critiques suggest a misunderstanding of Aronofsky’s abrasive style and his penchant for theatrics.
Going through his nearly 20-year career might offer some insight. All of the films mentioned are available on streaming and worth your time.
The world got a glimpse of young Aronofsky’s vision with 1998’s “Pi,” the no-budget tale of a math genius who discovers a numerical pattern uncovering various existential mysteries. He becomes increasingly paranoid about powerful forces — government, religious figures — that might be after him and his discovery.
Even on a $60,000 budget, Aronofsky conveyed technical skill through nerve-rattling camera work and editing. He continued this with his breakthrough, “Requiem for a Dream,” a horrific look at the ruinous effects of addiction.
Here he also begins to showcase a strong ability to direct actors. Ellen Burstyn, as the lonely and obsessed mom, gives one of the best performances of the past few decades. There’s also strong support from Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto. But, with this film, he began his ugly reputation of mistreating leading ladies. As far as what Aronofsky does to Connelly’s character towards the end of the film, that’s better left unsaid.
Audiences waited six years before “The Fountain” was released, after a series of starts and stops in production thanks to budget issues. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play multiple characters over various timelines searching for eternal youth.
Many called the ambitious flick pretentious; yet, the story gracefully delved into tricky ideas about romanticism and science fiction that expanded upon themes from “Pi” for a richer experience. “The Fountain” is one of those lost, modern classics worth revisiting. Or visiting.
After the financial failure of “The Fountain,” Aronofsky went back to low-budget tales of possessed men with “The Wrestler,” an incredible showcase for Mickey Rourke about a faded character dealing with the ravages of age and a haunted, failed life. Rourke relies heavily on his own reputation to create an imperfect character that gains our sympathy.
Perhaps most memorable were the “backyard” wrestling circuit scenes where we literally watch Rourke become a bloody pulp. Exploitative but harrowing, Aronofsky took the obsessive need for relevance, slammed it into our faces, and made “The Wrestler” impossible to forget.
Physical sacrifice for the sake of performance is also the theme of “Black Swan,” a seemingly campy ballet drama that played incredibly well as a horror flick. Instead of focusing on dancing, Aronofsky amplified crackling bones and foot blisters to show how far Oscar-winnner Natalie Portman’s character would go for the lead role in “Swan Lake.” There are ridiculous elements — Portman sprouting wings is a little ... much — but the film offers plenty of visceral thrills.
With that film’s success, Aronofsky got the big-budget green light to film “Noah.” Bringing the Biblical tale to its logical conclusion, we watch Russell Crowe’s Noah become convinced he must kill his own family to appease God’s will to start over. Provocative and misunderstood, the film didn’t exactly drive evangelical audiences to the theater, but it did prove the filmmaker wouldn’t lose his edge, even with a $100 million budget. The film didn’t make a whole lot of that money back, but is much better than advertised.
With “Mother!” the director veers back toward finding dread and horror in an artist’s work, more akin to “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan.” The use of the ironic exclamation mark in the title, often reserved for broader comedies, doesn’t alleviate concern.
But Aronofsky has defied convention before with his genre-bending style. His canon is consistent and bodes well for anyone looking for technically dazzling deconstructions of the human condition.
If you can appreciate the trajectory of his earlier work, this is a film to watch. If you are just looking for a regular horror flick, “Mother!” will almost certainly scare you back to the lobby for a refund.
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of energy policy group Renew Missouri. He created/wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before an extended stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, the NBC affiliate in Springfield. He was named a Top 20 Artist under the Age of 30 by The Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.