Mother! has no doubt been one of the most controversial film releases of the year.
Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature was booed at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, has divided critics over its crass and relentless melodrama, and has received an F rating from CinemaScore – the lowest rating possible – which was gathered from market research targeted at the general public. However, as polarising as the film has been, one thing is for sure: Jennifer Lawrence, who stars as the eponymous title figure, has never been better. If anything, this film may mark the start of a new, more exciting direction in her already impressive career.
In the early 2010s, Lawrence enjoyed a four-year grace period. Her breakout role in Winter’s Bone (2010) led to her emergence as the so-called ‘one to watch’ amidst the pool of young actresses in Hollywood; her involvement in The Hunger Games franchise made her into an overnight superstar; and her Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook displayed her honest and raw acting abilities. No one in the past decade has managed such a feat: that of successfully conquering a small indie project, a decade-defining blockbuster franchise, and an Oscar-worthy drama, perfectly seasoned to satisfy the Academy’s nostalgic taste buds, all in one fell swoop. She had the world at her fingertips and the acting chops to justify it. Her turn in David O’Russell’s mental health drama harked back to the Hollywood glamour of the ’50s and ’60s, perfectly capturing the character’s boisterous tendencies without shying away from the film’s more sensitive elements. It’s a performance of daring wit and brash humour that felt incredibly refreshing upon the film’s release, and has been attempted (albeit less satisfyingly) by the likes of Emma Stone since.
Lawrence continued this impressive run with two more features with O’Russell (American Hustle, Joy), although her later projects have failed to capture her luminous, iridescent spark. The X-Men franchise continues to be mere blockbuster cannon fodder, pushing her efforts to the side-lines, and a string of previously unreleased projects filmed years before her breakthrough have finally seen the light of day. However, Serena and The House at the End of the Street are best left unmentioned. Her most surprising release to date has been Passengers, which was released earlier this year. Starring alongside Chris Pratt as a stranded passenger on a colonising spaceship, Lawrence was met with her first serious blunder: working on a mediocre, high-budget genre film that did little to interest critics nor audiences, and was criticised for its tone deaf depiction of a seemingly abusive relationship.
Alongside her impressive body of work, Lawrence has developed a fascinating persona. During her grace period, she was Hollywood’s brightest and most charming starlet, praised for her honesty and no-filter approach to interviews. J-law could do no wrong; her faux pas at the Oscars, where she tripped over and fell on the red carpet, was symbolic of her refusal to conform to the rigid character traits of every other white actress working in Hollywood. But, inevitably, her charming ‘it-girl’ character soon tired. Audiences have become frustrated with her ‘relatable’ image, which sees her downplay her success and continually deny her privilege. She was even parodied on Saturday Night Live by Ariana Grande in a spoof of ‘Celebrity Family Feud’ (“They told me not to do a game show, but I was like, ‘Screw it, I can have fun, I’m a regular person’.”) After years of grafting for the title of America’s sweetheart, she found herself at the butt end of the joke.
Others have bombarded Lawrence with more serious accusations. Zeba Blay, writing for The Huffington Post in January 2016, called out her transphobic and homophobic remarks, her questionable stance on weight and eating disorders, and her ambivalence towards accusations of whitewashing directed at The Hunger Games. Blay continues: “Lawrence has, without a doubt, played into and benefited from her ‘it-girl’ status in ways that older women and women of colour would never be able to.” With these comments she joined the ranks of ‘white feminists’ such as Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, and Amy Schumer (the latter of which she famously befriended), which shifted her image far away from the Hollywood starlet she was originally portrayed as in her heyday.
However, this isn’t exactly her fault. As Kevin O’Keefe brilliantly expressed in his article for Mic, published in the same month as Blay’s: “None of this is Lawrence’s fault. This is how Hollywood works. Actresses are hot one second and annoying the next. Anne Hathaway, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet can empathise.” He raises an important point: Hollywood is scarily good at rearing each generation of young Hollywood actresses to perfection, meticulously crafting their image and generating hype by handing them awards like gold medals at sports day, to then send them straight to the slaughterhouse well before their sell-by date. There has come a point, O’Keefe argues, where we have reached peak Lawrence. Perhaps inevitably so, Jennifer Lawrence the brand has taken over Jennifer Lawrence the human being and Hollywood has spit her back out.
O’Keefe’s advice to Lawrence was to continue to challenge herself as an actress – and I couldn’t agree more. The last few years have seen her play things safe; her ‘relatable’ brand of goofy humour was refreshing seven years ago, but it’s sparkle has started to wear off. O’Keefe goes on to argue that she needs to sign up to more daring projects that truly show off her incredible talents and, with Mother!, it feels like Lawrence has taken his advice on board. She stars in the year’s most talked about film – a daring, esoteric, and genre defying spectacle that will leave no audience member unshaken. Her performance lies at the core of the piece; the camera follows her around, in a subjective POV-like manner, as her home descends into a surreal Biblical chaos. Her performance is astounding: she imbues the film with a multi-layered depiction of a woman stranded in a manipulative relationship, whilst the character’s increasing paranoia invades her makeshift paradise. At the same time, Mother! doesn’t feel like a pure J-Law vehicle. As much as she is at the centre of the piece, Aronofsky doesn’t let her overshadow the other performers, nor the house itself.
Considering we have reached ‘peak Lawrence’ and the public have begun to turn their backs on the actress, we can read the film’s invasion premise as a biographical account of Lawrence’s experiences in the media – it may be crass to do so, but everything about this bleakly comic film is crass. Mother! sees an actress at breaking point (quite literally – Lawrence broke a rib on set), unable to prevent the invasion of her privacy and the violation of her Eve-like image. With her being subject to online sex crime and email hacking in the past, this reading does make biographical sense. When we view Mother! through this prism, it’s easy to see how the film’s claustrophobia lends itself to speaking about media suffocation and the cult of celebrity. It’s a casting choice that’s almost too good to be true.
The experimental nature of this project bodes well for Lawrence’s career. We can only hope that she will take on more daring projects such as this in the future, in order to sustain public interest and give her performances a newfound bite. She might be heading in a new direction, but it’s certainly one that might pay off. Mother! proves that Jennifer Lawrence is still the most talented, exciting, and versatile actress working in cinema. After a brief period in which her image has endured destruction, she needs to rebuild from the fire, add a fresh lick of paint, and set her career alight once again.