If only we could love this overwhelming thriller as much as it loves itself
Is Darren Aronofsky’s new thriller a haunted-house story or a home-invasion tale? Is it religious allegory or just all gory? Is it playful, with that exclamation mark that hits the screen with a “ding!” or is it angry, with scenes of Boschian excess that you just want to tell it to shut the hell up?
The short answer is yes — Mother! is an assault on the senses that also tries to say something about the human condition, and particularly the ways in which selfishness and ego can collide in the name of faith. It’s the thinking person’s
Rosemary’s Baby. Unfortunately, it can be hard to think when it’s SHOUTING AT YOU.
The plot features a husband and wife, never named, and separated by (as one character crassly puts it), a full generation. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, the wife is busy rebuilding and repainting the oddly octagonal house where her husband (Javier Bardem), lived until fire destroyed it. He’s a writer, currently blocked.
She (let’s call her Jennifer), is often gripped with some kind of dizziness or confusion, although there’s a tincture she can take for that. But there’s no cure for the weirdness that unfolds when a doctor (Ed Harris), stumbles on their home, mistaking it for a bed and breakfast. Jennifer is wary, but Javier invites the man to spend the night.
Unfortunately, the doctor makes himself very much at home, to the point of inviting his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), to drop by the next day. In her wake come two brothers (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), whose squabbles escalate and multiply until the house is full of oddball strangers who just won’t leave, and Jennifer is having what looks like a psychotic attack.
But that’s just the first act. In what I can only call a testament to Aronofsky’s imagination, there’s another revelation coming. This
one is set almost nine months later, with Jennifer very pregnant, her husband’s creative powers fully restored, and yet another group of unwanted visitors banging on the door.
The less said here the better, but all the cinematic tricks Aronofsky has used in the first half — closeups, tightly framed handheld shots in claustrophobic rooms (don’t sit too near the screen), a super-cranked sound design that includes the house creaking and groaning and sighing like an arthritic choir, halfcomprehensible echo es from other rooms, squishy liquids in unexpected places — they’re all back in even greater force, along with violence, sexuality and language of the sort you’re only likely to hear again if they cast Samuel L. Jackson in a remake of Lord of the Flies.
It’s an almost painful experience, with Jennifer front and centre as the audience surrogate in this nightmare scenario, her face a twisted grimace of fear and revulsion that seemed overdone until I felt my jaw and realized I was doing pretty much the same thing myself.
This is the director’s most powerful movie to date — it makes
Noah look like a Sunday-school picnic — but it’s a raw power, not contained by anything resembling realistic, flesh-and-blood characters. The emotion is there, as is the symbolism, but it’s not in the service of something greater. And disappointingly, once you crack the movie’s metaphorical code, it ceases to surprise, if not to shock.
Perhaps coincidentally, this is the director’s first feature in which he is also the sole writer. The result is a movie in love with itself. I’m glad I caught up with Mother!, if only to join in the inevitable debate about its worthiness — but unlike Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and especially Black Swan, I have no desire to see it again.
Jennifer Lawrence in the Darren Aronofsky-directed film Mother!.