A two-hour nightmare, nearly every frame of Mother! is designed to be deeply unpleasant. Since that's the goal, and since it accomplishes that goal so well, Mother! kind of has to get an A+, four stars, two thumbs up, right? I'm not sure I can tell you what the fuck Mother! is, but I am pretty sure it's exactly what writer/director Darren Aronofsky meant to make. Good for him! Whether that's good for anyone else is TBD.
Also TBD: Why Mother! has that jaunty little exclamation point, and how you’ll feel stumbling out of the theater. Mother! is the kind of movie that’ll have some declaring it a work of genius and others decrying it as a piece of garbage. (I’m guessing zero people will land in the middle; nobody’s leaving Mother! with a shrug.) And good luck trying to classify it: Is it an arthouse horror movie? A thriller? A twisted romance? Sure, Mother! could be a trippy take on a disintegrating marriage, or it could serve as a Biblical allegory for the creative process. Is it a far-reaching indictment of America’s lifestyle consumerism, or just a movie about how far Aronofsky has his head up his ass? Is it brilliant? Is it terrible? Is it both? It’s Mother!
Aronofsky might not always make great movies, but his filmography is stacked with darkly fascinating ones: Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah all have moments no other filmmaker could conceive. So it’s hard not to be in the guy’s corner—in an era of thudding, repetitive franchises and wispy, forgettable Oscar bait, Aronofsky’s movies thrum with something primal and unique, with part of his id always squirming onscreen. In Mother!, that id seems to have taken over, sipping espresso in the director’s chair and calling the shots in the editing bay.
Mother! blurs into dark dream logic, with increasingly elaborate, increasingly jarring scenes bleeding into each other. Aronofsky captures it with claustrophobic close-ups, his camera leaving Lawrence’s frantic eyes only to peer over her shoulder as her reality twists and rots.
Mother! starts with a whole lot of Rosemary’s Baby: From the moment she wakes up, a subtle dread follows an unnamed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who’s living her best Martha Stewart impression, fixing up her half-decrepit, half-beautiful mansion in the middle of nowhere. (No roads lead to this house; it’s surrounded only by gentle fields of grass and far-off trees.) As Lawrence’s blank, bland woman restores and polishes and paints and bakes, her unnamed poet husband (Javier Bardem) fights a case of writer’s block, weary tension just behind his eyes. Sure, things are a bit off—like how whenever Lawrence touches one of the house’s walls she sees a beating heart—but hey, everyone’s got quirks, right?
When a creepy unnamed man (Ed Harris) and a cruel unnamed woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up at the front door, things get weirder. There’s the glowing diamond that Bardem is very protective of, for starters, or the blood-spurting creature that Lawrence finds in the toilet. And when even more people show up, Mother! blurs into dark dream logic, with increasingly elaborate, increasingly jarring scenes bleeding into each other. Aronofsky captures it with claustrophobic close-ups, his camera leaving Lawrence’s frantic eyes only to peer over her shoulder as her reality twists and rots: There’s the vagina-shaped hole in the floor, seeping blood. There’s the sinister doorway in the basement, also soaked in blood. There’s... well, more blood.
Even before it’s halfway over, this slow-motion anxiety attack feels like a lot (“Nothing is ever enough,” Bardem insists. “We couldn’t create if it was”), but as Mother! veers from surreal to silly and back again—throwing in some jump scares, a few excellent stretches of purely visual storytelling, and not a single joke—it’s a line from Lawrence that might sum it up best. “What’s happening?” she gasps, in a scene where her character is even more exhausted and horrified than in all the other scenes where she’s exhausted and horrified. Good question, Jen. Maybe Darren knows.