Who’s there?

Jennifer Lawrence de­liv­ers a bril­liantly op­er­atic per­for­mance in this macabre, shock­ing and blackly comic story of a cou­ple whose lives are up­ended by the ar­rival of two mys­te­ri­ous strangers

The Guardian - G2 - - Reviews film - By Peter Brad­shaw


Dir: Dar­ren Aronof­sky. With: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bar­dem, Ed Harris. 121 mins. Cert: 18

It’s a pow­er­ful enough word at the best of times, but the ex­cla­ma­tion mark gives it that edge of delir­ium and melo­drama and de­spair – just the way Nor­man Bates yells it at the end of Psy­cho. Or maybe we’re sup­posed to hear a sec­ond, bru­tal two-syl­la­ble word im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards. Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s tow­er­ingly out­ra­geous film leaves no gob un­smacked. It is an event­movie det­o­na­tion, a phan­tas­magor­i­cal hor­ror and black-comic night­mare that jams the nar­co­sis nee­dle right into your ab­domen. Mother! es­ca­lates the anx­i­ety and ups the ante of dis­may with every scene, every act, every trimester, tak­ing us in short or­der from WTF to WTAF and be­yond.

It’s a very bad dream of very bad things: in­flu­enced per­haps by Polan­ski’s Rose­mary’s Baby or Buñuel’s The Ex­ter­mi­nat­ing An­gel, and I sus­pect that Aronof­sky has fallen un­der the spell of the dark mas­ter of of­fen­sive mis­chief him­self Lars Von Trier and his hor­ror film An­tichrist. But it is as dead­pan com­edy that this film can be un­der­stood: a macabre spec­ta­cle of re­vul­sion, a ver­i­ta­ble agape of chaos.

The open­ing act gives us a view of a hu­man heart be­ing flushed down the lava­tory – as good an im­age as any for the film’s mys­te­ri­ous, hal­lu­ci­na­tory cal­lous­ness. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bar­dem are tremen­dously op­er­atic as the leads and it is great to wel­come Michelle Pfeif­fer back to the big screen in a pleas­ingly cruel sup­port­ing role.

Lawrence and Bar­dem play a mar­ried cou­ple, never named, who live in a colos­sal house in the mid­dle of nowhere: an oc­tag­o­nal folly be­long­ing to his fam­ily that has had to be ex­ten­sively re­built af­ter an aw­ful fire. Lawrence has ev­i­dently taken on the task of de­sign and decor. This is her do­mes­tic pas­sion-project ac­tiv­ity pur­sued in a sub­mis­sive spirit while her fa­mous older-man hus­band gets on with his ag­o­nised vo­ca­tion: try­ing and fail­ing to write.

He is a pop­u­lar au­thor and poet whose work has touched peo­ple deeply – a kind of Paulo Coelho fig­ure who is now, how­ever, wrestling with writer’s block, un­able to get his sen­si­tive words down with an old-fash­ioned foun­tain pen on what looks like parch­ment. No lap­top for him. And yet Lawrence is doomed to be a kind of B-list Sofia Tol­stoy, ha­rassed by her hus­band’s creepy acolytes whom he in­dulges.

Some­thing is very wrong. Their lives to­gether, so seem­ingly per­fect, are bar­ren in terms of lit­er­a­ture and bi­ol­ogy. Be­cause they have no chil­dren, and that is a prob­lem. Yet their emo­tional stag­nancy is shaken up by the ap­pear­ance of a strange vis­i­tor knock­ing at the door late one night.

Ed Harris plays a man who claims to be a new or­thopaedic sur­geon at the lo­cal hos­pi­tal. He thought their house was a B&B – huh? – but could he stay the night any­way? In­stantly af­fa­ble and even ex­u­ber­ant, the great au­thor says sure, and to his young wife’s silent as­ton­ish­ment starts chat­ting rau­cously with this stranger, drink­ing whisky with him, let­ting him smoke in the house. Then the man’s wife (Pfeif­fer) shows up and is ca­su­ally dis­re­spect­ful of Lawrence’s po­si­tion as mis­tress of the house. She starts of­fer­ing deeply un­wel­come and im­per­ti­nent ad­vice about how to keep their mar­riage fresh.

As if in a night­mare, this cou­ple ef­fec­tively in­vade the house and it turns out that the “sur­geon” has a much more di­rect in­ter­est in the au­thor than he at first ad­mit­ted. These strangers’ pres­ence in their lives is to end in calamity and yet it is a dis­as­ter that leads to a happy de­vel­op­ment. The evil ef­fec­tively im­preg­nates her: or is it that they have al­chemised the evil into good­ness and a bur­geon­ing new life? The prospect of a baby ap­pears to be a happy end­ing that can­cels the or­deal that she has just en­dured for her hus­band’s sake. Yet her trou­bles are just be­gin­ning.

Lawrence car­ries the movie. Aronof­sky keeps his cam­era close into her face al­most all of the time: her creamy, waxy youth­ful­ness and beauty fill the screen and trans­mit the dis­plea­sure and dis­quiet that she must keep un­der con­trol. Bar­dem’s sen­sual slab of a face is closely mon­i­tored, too, re­spond­ing to her fu­ri­ous com­plaints with a seraphic smile, treat­ing her like an un­com­pre­hend­ing child or a bovine icon, or­bit­ing him as the cen­tre of a new be­lief sys­tem that will be in place as his pub­lished works in­spire more and more peo­ple.

Mother! re­minded me of the mu­si­cal The Book of Mor­mon: it could be about the birth of a new re­li­gion with all the ir­ra­tional ab­sur­dity, van­ity and celebrity wor­ship that this en­tails. Or it could be a satir­i­cal por­trait of a mar­riage and the hu­mil­i­a­tion in­volved in cater­ing for a sleekly pompous man old enough to be your fa­ther. But maybe it is just about the glee­ful an­ar­chy in­volved in de­struc­tion, in sim­ply tak­ing the au­di­ence on a se­ries of stom­ach-turn­ing quan­tum leaps into mad­ness. As hor­ror it is ridicu­lous, as com­edy it is star­tling and hi­lar­i­ous, and as a ma­chine for freak­ing you out it is a thing of won­der.

A very bad dream of very bad things, Mother! is a spec­ta­cle of chaos

Stom­ach-turn­ing leaps into mad­ness … Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

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