In Darren Aronofsky’s ferocious but fatally chaotic Mother!, Jennifer Lawrence stars as the young wife of a would-be author (played by Javier Bardem) experiencing writer’s block. The arrival of unannounced guests (played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) intrudes upon the quiet of the couple’s country home, which they’re in the process of renovating. A mysterious opening scene establishes immediately that this isn’t going to be like any other film you’ve seen this year.
The puzzle at the core of Mother! is that, for most of the film, we’re not sure if we trust the mindset of Lawrence’s character and whether the more outrageous things we’re seeing are hallucinations. There’s also the mystery of why Aronofsky decided the title needed an exclamation point, as if his crazy new film wouldn’t stand out.
Lawrence dials down her usually boisterous screen presence and gives a radiant, admirably committed turn. Bardem, like Harris and Pfieffer, is entirely dialed in to the director’s off-kilter characterizations.
The first act, in which the camera closely follows Lawrence as she explores the confines of their home and experiences unease as uninvited guests arrive, is the strongest. Striking visual clues faintly suggest where Aronofsky is taking us and fans of his work know to expect a relentlessly intense experience.
More so than Aronofsky’s Black Swan or Requiem For A Dream (both masterpieces), this gave me the same sensation I had while viewing his rocky interpretation of Noah: after initially admiring how bold, uncompromised and committed he was to his vision, I felt worn down, jerked around and finally cried out “Uncle!”
I liked the final reveal, which answers the basic question of “What’s going on?” Yet, Aronofsky still leaves multiple interpretations on the table. Among them, this could be an allegory about motherhood overall, humanity portrayed as a fatally flawed microcosm or a metaphor for the creation and practice of a religion. Also, note the way a character states, “I need to take this to prove I was here,” a possible suggestion that the film is a commentary on colonialism(!). There’s a lot here to chew on, though most of the big moments in the third act rush by without creating a full emotional impact.
On the surface, Mother! evokes the agoraphobia and mounting paranoia of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. It also reminded me of Thomas Berger’s darkly comic novels about proper etiquette in dealing with unwanted houseguests and how we should go in being accommodating. There’s also portions that suggest Aronofsky has viewed John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon and likes a sprinkle of Richard Lester-type anarchy.
If this all sounds very pretentious, so be it. Every great movie is pretentious. The problem here is that, in spite of how thought provoking and confrontational Aronofsky has intentionally made this, Mother! doesn’t work as well it should.
With its subplot of how a writer’s words have the power to create and destroy, the film this reminded me the most is, of all things, M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. That film and Aronofsky’s latest are both crafted with great skill, take huge risks, could care less about alienating their audience and stumble over the murk of their screwy presentation.
It’s not Aronofsky’s fault that Paramount Pictures has released effective but misleading trailers promoting his film. Make no mistake, this isn’t a horror film. Well, unless you’re an expectant mother or have a newborn. In that case, this may be unwatchable (truth be told, Aronofsky’s other works are far more grueling). Individual opinion on this will likely scattered as the film itself. There are great scenes, especially early on but this is a film only a mother(!) could love.