2017, R, 121 min. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Jovan Adepo, Amanda Chiu, Patricia Summersett.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 22, 2017
Director Darren Aronofsky isn’t known for reining in his madly fertile imagination and Mother!, his first true horror film, blazes new synapses in the cinematic zeitgeist, reveling in bloody black metaphor, cultural terror, and rampant religious allegory (emphasis on the gory, to be sure). It’s an absolutely crazed fever dream of a film, and like a febrile infant it begins with a few odd notes and barely heard, often off-camera sounds, and then proceeds to build those seemingly minor instances of weird until it crescendos into an ear-piercing, panic-inducing visual and aural shriek. I’m pretty sure that if you had glanced at me at the end, you would have seen Edvard Munch’s The Scream quaking next to you.
This is not unexpected. Aronofsky previously directed the Oscar-nominated bad dream Black Swan and the utterly desolate Requiem for a Dream, both of which contained more than their fair share of disturbing imagery and thematics, but Mother! takes the audience through an entirely new circle of hell, one tailor-made for our stressed and apocalyptic modern mindset. It is, from start to finish, a wholly unnerving exercise in distress, realized with explosive, exceedingly visceral panache by director of photography Matthew Libatique and production designer Andrew Weisblum, as well as an entirely game cast that ratchets up the slow-burn vibe of the movie into the realm of the mind-glowingly crazed. Miraculously, it remains cohesive throughout, despite the fact that for most of its running time you’re likely to be wondering what the hell, exactly, is going on onscreen. Yet before confusion can get a grip, Aronofsky ups the unease level into the stratosphere, rivaling two films by Roman Polanski that border on or trip over into similar areas: Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant (and, sure, why not Cul-de-sac as well).
Discussing Mother!’s plot directly necessarily involves mentioning spoilers that would tamp down the long, long fuse that crackles throughout the film’s bent and twisted storyline, but here’s what I can tell you without despoiling the actual experience of viewing the movie: A husband and wife, known only as Mother (Lawrence) and Him (Bardem), live alone and childless in a picturesque rural manse. He’s a poet of some sort and one day his work brings him unexpected fame, of a sort, when a Man (Harris) and a Woman (Pfeiffer) randomly arrive at the couple’s front door. Because the character of Mother is the viewer’s only true POV, the arrival is fraught with a skewed sense of unease. The poet has penned a work that quickly brings him outrageous fame and before long, a steady stream of strangers begin filtering through the couple’s home and completely upend their (but mostly Mother’s) life. And that’s all I can say for now, except perhaps to note that the couple do not remain childless for long. Everything bad in the world ensues.
As a meditation of the predations that come with success and its dark twin fame – something Lawrence and her co-stars are presumably intimately aware of – Aronofsky’s film is a raging, hellbent-for-leather polemic, but there’s much more than that going on in this heavily subtextual/allegorical story. Suffice to say it’s a fame nightmare that touches on the difficulties of marriage, birth, death, the creative process, and, perhaps, eventual renewal. It’s brilliant, horrifying, dreamlike, and has a helluva lot on its mind. Chances are you’ll be trying, in vain, to get it off your mind and out of your own dreams for some time to come.