If the advertisements and trailers for Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! makes you think that it’s a twist on Rosemary’s Baby, you wouldn’t even be half right. And in no way prepared for how insane the film actually is. If Rosemary’s Baby was a slow-burn that finally comes to a boil in its last few minutes, mother! is a low-burn that goes from smoldering to scalding, blast-the-lid-off-the-sucker hot in the space of a single heartbeat.
The Mother of the title (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a newly renovated home in the middle of nowhere with her husband, Him (Javier Bardem). Him is a poet, but he’s been suffering through horrible writer’s block that is starting to take a toll on his marriage to Mother. Things start to unravel one day when the Man (Ed Harris), a dying doctor and fan of Him’s work, shows up to the house. The next day, his wife the Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, and it’s not long before a steady stream of strangers enter into Mother and Him’s life, threatening to destroy the quiet existence they’ve built for themselves.
WARNING! THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
As it might be made apparent from that paragraph, none of the characters in the film has a given name, and the names here are only revealed during the end credits. The characters are more symbols than they are people, and how well you go along with that idea is a good barometer of how much you may or may not enjoy Aronofsky’s film, which is much more Jodorowsky than it is Polanski. It’s as much Biblical allegory and sociopolitical commentary as it is psychological horror, and that becomes more and more apparent as the film’s reaches its climax.
The film begins innocently enough, quiet and natural, almost to an unsettling degree. Scenes are lit almost entirely with natural light, very few colors go beyond earth tones, and the soundtrack consists of only ambient noise. The film is set completely within Mother’s house, the layout and dimensions of which we never truly get a grasp on, even in establishing shots showing the house from the outside. It makes the film seem like a parody of pastoral life set in a dream-logic diorama, seemingly allowing anything to happen while maintaining a tenuous grasp on solidity. There’s never a clear sense of time or place, with the film seeming to take place in a setting that’s microcosm and macrocosm in equal measures.
Aronofsky, however, never pretends that he’s making anything other than a tense drama always on the verge of spilling over into nightmare territory. From the opening scenes, where Mother walks through the house in a thin nightgown while looking for Him, there is a nearly unbearable tension in the air. Even happier moments are undercut with the darkness swimming under the surface, threatening to break free at any moment. Every character is walking on thin ice, and any single one of them might cause it to crack at any second.
Much of the tension comes from Aronofsky’s choice to show the film almost entirely through Mother’s perspective, often framing the view over Mother’s shoulder or focusing entirely on Jennifer Lawrence’s face. Lawrence does an amazing job, even though the character of Mother seems purposefully underwritten and underdeveloped. She spends a great deal of the time reacting in panic to what’s happening around her, but Lawrence sells the ever-living hell out of it. Her chemistry with Javier Bardem’s Him never fully gels, but given that Mother and Him’s marriage is on shaky ground, that’s to be expected.
Bardem himself cuts a strange path through the film, alternating between Mother’s closest ally and her most powerful antagonist, sometimes in the same scene. He’s effortlessly charming, but there’s a constant sense that something’s off about his behavior. He’s clearly dedicated to his role, however, as is the supporting cast, especially Michelle Pfeiffer in a tightly-wound, stiletto-pointed turn as the Woman. Her sharper features and cynical outlook contrast beautifully with Lawrence’s curvier and more innocent Mother, and their scenes together feature both actresses at their best. A special notice also goes out to Kristen Wiig, playing Him’s publicist (credited as “Herald”). In her few short moments on screen, Wiig turns her established comic persona completely on its head, using her warm charm to disarm the audience before her character takes a decidedly brutal turn.
What may divide opinion on the film, however, isn’t its technical aspects or cast but Aronofsky’s thick metaphorical narrative. The film is clearly an allegory for the Fall of Man, with Him being the Christian god and Mother being the Earth. The Man and Woman arrive to start complicating things, as do their Cain-and-Abel sons and a seemingly endless parade of humans intent on screwing up and destroying the world they’ve been given. Mother is constantly abused, neglected, and disrespected by the strangers, and she comes to realize that the narcissistic and intermittently-sociopathic Him is more concerned with how much the strangers adore and respect him than the damage they’re doing to his wife and his house.
In service to that metaphor, Aronofsky stages some truly unsettling set pieces during the film’s dizzying, chaotic, batshit-insane third act, where his subtle symbolism turns into a sledgehammer that violently crashes through the film’s universe. What happens elicits both disgust and fascination at the same time, seemingly both grotesquely gratuitous and absolutely necessary. In many ways, it mirrors the raw and divisive emotional impact of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, which had an 8-minute, single-take, no-music rape scene at its center. It both alienates and strengthens the bond with the audience, eagerly exploding any good will the film might have developed in bold service to its core message.
And like Irreversible, mother! is a brilliant film that begs to be deconstructed, and also a film that I’ll never need to see again. It’s brutal, shocking, and powerful while also being unmercifully exhausting and insidiously haunting. Starting out as quietly hypnotic then invisibly morphing into something that’s morbidly fascinating in the levels of outrageousness it reaches, it’s a work that’s as admirable as it is difficult to watch. Even thinking about it now makes my heart tighten a bit. There’s a very good reason that Aronofsky put an exclamation point in the title.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+