mother! is the, at the time of this writing, latest release by film maestro Darren Aronofsky of “Are you uncomfortable yet? What if I go up real close to you and start breathing heavily?” fame. This did not shy away from that motif, spending most of its time, well, up close and personal with star Jennifer Lawrence’s face. For, like, most of the film. If this bothers you, don’t worry, I doubt you are alone here. The amount of time we spend in extreme close-ups on J-Law is a lot, but having said all that I really think it works in terms of what this movie is trying to convey and why it’s so goddamn effective in its horror.
Stripping away all it’s incredibly arch and melodramatic metaphors, what the story of mother! is about is a woman confined by all the forces around her. Not just her controlling husband (ominously named ‘Him’ in the credits), but their confinement to a secluded area, the house that can never be fixed, and even their guests both wanted and not. Usually a way to convey this is through emphasis on the abuse and tension between the lead and all the characters surrounding her. What is being done here, instead, is turn the focus around more on the victim of all this and getting her reaction and isolation.
We rarely, if ever, get close-ups of the other characters. The only one who gets more than a few is Him, and it’s mostly when he’s interacting with our protagonist in a more honest, forthright way. It’s one of the few times he makes her feel listened to. Otherwise, he’s as blown away by the camera as the others are. The few extreme close-ups includes the murderous son and the proselytiser near the end. Both of which is when they are wildly lecturing Lawrence (known as ‘mother’), both of which is a moment where she realises she’s irrevocably trapped in this situation.
They go so far as to rarely put mother fully on the screen, she’s either in profile or close-up. A lot of the cut backs are reaction shots or her taking charge of the emotion, nearly all of which are close-ups. Funnily enough, some of the few wide shots we get are from outside the house, into the wilderness she cannot escape to. One of these, at a crucial moment, is the one of the only moments she’s fully onscreen. As far away from the camera as possible surrounded by the intimidating house. This is only one of the only shots not entirely from her perspective.
Her emotion guides the story throughout, and this is shown through the camera work making absolutely sure everything is felt through her. Some of the few other perspectives we get are from Him, and tellingly it’s when mother is not actually in the movie at that point. The other characters, like ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as they are called, have no real personality outside of how mother sees them. man is a weak, boorish nuisance and woman is a catty lush. Even after their son dies we get very little in terms of actual growth from them. Because, for the purposes of this story, the only “real” characters are mother and Him. Everyone else is a prop for the intent.
Speaking of, the camera work becomes a hell of a lot tighter the more this intent becomes clear. We see that in how other characters are framed when they arrive; they are further away from the camera and mother when they discuss plot progressions without her input or consent. The sound even dips in and out based on how she is listening. This gets worse when more guests arrive. The camera becomes frantic and goes out of its way to avoid focusing on anyone else, even when they try to overtake a shot. This also helps the tension because we have no frame of reference to what is happening until mother reacts to it, even though it’s all happening in the confines of a sizeable but not mansion-like house. This is especially effective when shit gets incredibly nuts in the final act.
I could go further, but I think I’ve made my point. mother! does not have such a controlled, specific extreme close-up bent because the director wanted us to see the precise definition of Jennifer Lawrence’s nostril hair. It’s to put us in the same claustrophobic mood with the protagonist. The camera lens becomes our personal space; it becomes her ‘face’. When people get all up in her ‘face’, they’re getting in our ‘face’ and we feel just how powerless and invaded she feels. I think most introverts can really get how lacking in personal control you feel when people are all up in your goddamn house that you’re meant to feel protected in! This is about a woman who realises she has lost all her agency to this controlling, selfish man and to the world around her. We are meant to be right there with her to feel what that feels like, down to every detail of her bewildered expressions.
Or, I don’t know, maybe Aronofsky wanted us to see how pretty Jennifer Lawrence is. They were dating at the time.