Darren Aronofsky’s allegorical assualt to the senses mother! (2017) recently popped up on my radar again, thanks to a social media challenge to name your four favorite films of the last ten years. Narrowing it down was dificult, but one choice was easy.
When mother! opened, I wrote a review questioning why most audiences seemed to be freaking the fuck out about the movie, so check that out if you want to read me grumbling about why moviegoers seem so allergic to confronting difficult, challenging themes in movies. I don’t feel like rehashing that these days, largely because the movie seems to have become slightly more well-regarded since then – either that or it’s just the same people who loved it when it came out being vocal about it now. I don’t know, but what I do know is since seeing it in the theater, I’ve consistently felt it’s one of the best movies of that decade, and additional viewings have only strengthened this opinion. Another opinion that hasn’t wavered over the years is that Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as “Woman” is a jaw-dropping, force-of-nature masterclass that should have earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
From the minute she appears at the front door of Jennifer Lawrence’s and Javier Bardem’s house, she commands the screen. Playing the living embodiment of original sin, Michelle peformance is primal and infused with sensual feline movements and gestures – a nice complement to her most famous feline role, Catwoman. Just watch how she tucks her legs under herself on the couch with catlike grace while shooting a mischievous glare at Jennifer Lawrence’s anxious character. It’s only a brief few seconds, but it has stuck with me since that first viewing. She’s absolutely electrifying in the role, and that single moment epitomizes why: she’s alluring, dangerous, playful, and downright scary in equal measure throughout the film.
Michelle’s screen time is relatively brief, and she disappears before the last act of the film, but her performance is about quality versus quantity, and I’d contend that for the half hour or so that she’s onscreen, she steals the movie out from under everyone and leaves a crater-sized impact behind before she drifts away. The character, alongside her husband, played by Ed Harris, arrive with the force of a hurriance while kicking the film’s biblically chaotic narrative into higher gear. Michelle especially is like pure, barely-contained lust and seething malvolence come to life. It’s an astonishingly confident performance. As is her hallmark, she feels utterly organic in the part and thus entirely believable. If original sin walked the earth, she would look and behave like Woman. Pfeiffer brings a concept to life in a way few have done before or since.
The fact that Michelle has only been nominated three times for an Oscar is absurd on the face of it when you consider how many excellent performances she’s crafted over the years. She wasn’t nominated for The Age of Innocence. Or Batmam Returns. Or White Oleander. Let all that sink in, and now let yourself fill with incandescent rage over the Academy’s ineptness at recognizing one of the truest talents in movies the past four decades. Her work in mother! is on that list as well because, like the others, the role serves as an exquisite reminder of just how powerful an impression she leaves behind in a film. It’s often so overwhelming an impact that costars and the film itself risk being overshadowed by her brilliance. Yes, I know, I’m in the bag for Michelle. We all know this. But all anyone has to do is watch her in these films, or most films she’s ever made, and the evidence is impossible to miss.
At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Don’t sleep on mother!, or one of Michelle’s most explosive and unforgettable performances.