Beyond Lawrence, ‘Mother!’ is just a pile of excess
Domestic drama becomes nightmare to endure on screen
'Mother!," Darren Aronofsky's tour de force of allegorical misdirection, is about many things, in succession and simultaneously. What begins as a creepily insinuating chamber piece of domestic discord quickly takes on more metaphorical meanings, with drama giving way to outright horror: Here, a parable of marital anxiety becomes a lurid, Boschlike meditation on environmental destruction, idolatry and — ultimately — blind devotion to a greedy and insatiable god.
Mostly, though, this intriguing but ultimately frustratingly undisciplined experiment is about Jennifer Lawrence, who proves once again what a supernatural screen presence she is, delivering a performance of transparency, stillness, physical grit and self-sacrificing courage. As the enigmatic title character, she's our surrogate and guide through the highly charged environment Aronofsky has conceived: In this case, it's an elegant Victorian house, standing regally in a serene field, that Lawrence's character is restoring as an idyllic home and creative cocoon for her husband, a famous poet played by Javier Bardem.
Fans of "The Shining" will think they have "Mother!" sussed when Bardem turns out to be blocked and when Lawrence's wary but radiant heroine begins to sense a beating heart underneath the house's sturdy bones. But then a strange couple — played in wickedly observant turns by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer — shows up, injecting a malign, anarchic force reminiscent of Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon in "Rosemary's Baby."
And, yes, a Polanskian air of maternal dread — the primal fear of loss of control and privacy — suffuses "Mother!," which at its most astute and provocative could be a mirror to Aronofsky's own ambivalence about fame. Specifically, he seems to be zeroing in on auteur worship, parasitic fandom and women playing muse, vessel and protective space-maker for male genius. Lawrence, who exudes a stunning combination of innocence and watchful wisdom, pads through the characters' eight-sided house with the same alarm as Mia Farrow four decades ago, but also with more assurance and self-possession as the stakes of her fight become not just higher, but surreally so.
But even Lawrence's magnetic powers can't keep "Mother!" from going off the rails, which at first occurs cumulatively, then in a mad rush during the film's outlandish climax. Shot by Aronofsky's frequent cinematographer Matthew Libatique with the intimate close-ups familiar from "Black Swan" and "The Fighter," this is a movie whose sense of claustrophobia becomes woozily stifling, its dreamlike shots and pans, always from Lawrence's point of view, growing more nauseating by the minute.
As the visual language becomes increasingly nightmarish, the message of "Mother!" becomes exponentially more obscure. There's a Cain-and-Abel subplot suggesting that Aronofsky wasn't finished with the Old Testament after his 2014 movie "Noah," but then again, maybe this is his own viscerally graphic version of the Jesus story. Or, as he has intimated in comments to the press, perhaps this is the cri de coeur of an artist overwhelmed by environmental, social and cultural destruction.
Whichever it is, "Mother!" seems assured to divide the filmmaker's fans, many of whom will celebrate another audacious statement from a master of cinema as dreamscape of our darkest unconscious, but some of whom will think he misses the mark in the interest of pulp excess and flamboyance. Wherever you land on that spectrum, it's difficult to argue that, while it lasts, "Mother!" flies its freak flag with intensity that is bracing, febrile and uncompromising.
Two stars. Rated R. Contains strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and obscenity. 121 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
Jennifer Lawrence in "Mother!"