One thing is for sure: it’s pretty much impossible to be bored by a Darren Aronofsky film. The 48 year old director’s previous six films formed a treatise on the dangers of self-harming monomaniacal obsession, defined by protagonists certain to cause their own downfalls. His first attempt at something approaching the mainstream, 2014’s Bible epic Noah, succeeded primarily in alienating audiences with his emphasis on psychological trauma and the dangers of zealotry (and also rock monsters), and while it made money, it made less than Black Swan on a much larger budget. Aronofsky hasn’t had a film carried by the major arm of a studio since The Fountain turned disastrous for Fox, but that hasn’t deterred Paramount from rolling out the red carpet for his Noah follow-up, a domestic drama starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer with a September wide release. Would this be a Black Swan level success or something more akin to Noah or The Fountain? Regardless of how it does, at least there’s a good chance it would be interesting.
mother! certainly begins with a statement: an extreme close-up of a woman’s face consumed by fire as a house burns to the ground. It’s a stark, striking image, one that belies the film’s otherwise sleepy opening act. Lawrence and Bardem are an unnamed married couple living in a massive remote estate in a clearing in the woods. He is a famous poet struggling with a particularly acute case of writer’s block, while she works to restore his home to its former glory after it was damaged in a fire. Their life is blissful and quiet until the serenity is shattered by the arrival of a stranger (Harris) and soon after his wife (Pfeiffer). The couple, taken in by the magnanimity of Bardem, who also hopes they will stoke his creative fires, make themselves aggressively at home, ignoring Lawrence’s pleas for civility and decorum. Things continue to take off from there, as increasingly wild events destroy her idyllic and structured life, creating a rift between the happy couple as his writing continues to fail and her desire for a child is stymied.
Perspective plays a key role in mother!, and despite the deep cast (including the likes of Domhnall Gleeson and Kristen Wiig beyond the four principals), the film is all about Jennifer Lawrence. She is in every scene and practically every shot, Matthew Libatique’s expertly placed camera following her dotingly around this cavernous house, creating a clear first person perspective in the film. Anything that happens outside of her purview is a mystery, with all manner of bumps in the night adding to her disquiet and growing frustration with this constant violation of her personal space. She has no sense of what’s going on, and the audience is right there with her. The sound design shines here, through muffled conversations in adjacent rooms and all manner of crashes and bangs as these interlopers abuse her house and her hard work. The actions of the intruders are so brazen, so beyond societal niceties that it often feels almost alien, some sort of sick experiment designed to spike her anxiety. It’s a lot of heavy lifting and heavy breathing from Lawrence (she reportedly tore her diaphragm and dislocated a rib during shooting), forced to weigh her devotion to her husband and propriety with the growing rage and hopelessness that bubbles up as control is wrested away from her. It’s the sort of performance we haven’t really seen from her since breaking out with Winter's Bone, one that reminds you of why she became one of the defining leading ladies of Hollywood. It’s especially gratifying seeing her paired against Pfeiffer, a Hollywood starlet of a different generation, dizzyingly catty and provocative as she struts around the house like she owns the place, knowing full well she can do whatever she wants. It’s a twisted version of her villainous turn in Stardust, a reminder that though Pfeiffer hasn’t spent much time in the spotlight lately, she is still more than capable of commanding it. mother! shows her at her full power, stealing scenes left and right with a sneer and a scowl. It’s a delectable performance, and might have been one of the more indelible impressions of mother! if not for its explosive third act that’s sure to steal the headlines. The women rule the roost; this is a story about a woman, after all, but Bardem does well as this strange, careening soul, gregarious to a fault (he’s the classic Aronofsky obsessive in this case) and completely oblivious to (or perhaps uncaring of?) the damage he’s inflicting on his wife. Aronofsky is going for a very specific aesthetic tone here, a home invasion thriller psychodrama with layered metaphors and melodramatic elements. The cast needs to support that tone, and are stellar doing so.
Aronofsky is at his core a shock artist, and despite its fiery opening, much of mother! is relatively quiet in comparison to his more directly bombastic work like Requiem for a Dream. But as the film matures and evolves, the insanity of it all ratchets up, arguably beyond anything he’s done before (which is saying something in this case). The underlying metaphors take a bit of time to unravel, and it’s enjoyably reflective to think of the first half of the film as his aim becomes clear. Subtlety has never been a hallmark of Aronofsky’s films; he’s far more interested in the blunt trauma of facing your fears head-on. Commitment and ambition, though, have been firmly in his wheelhouse since PI, and the third act of mother! has both in spades. This is a movie that goes for it, man, holding nothing back as it piles crazy situation upon crazy situation until nothing resembles anything anymore, and then pushes even further. It becomes a visceral ride, a carnival horror show with surprises around every corner, always exciting and often depraved. It becomes impossible to look away from. The third act is Aronofsky fully unleashed, and it’s a scary thing.
mother! definitely isn’t for everyone. Many will call it self-serving and pretentious, a hollow shadow of Rosemary's Baby (anyone unconvinced by the parallel should probably take a gander at mother!’s poster) or a cheap shot at religious storytelling. It’s imagery tracks heavily on Biblical and Christian iconography and harsh, shocking violence in a way that succeeds in its desire to unnerve, appall and antagonize its audience. At times, it feels as punishing as Requiem for a Dream at its worst, and at times as beautiful as Black Swan at its best. This is a culmination of Aronofsky’s career, a synthesis of his favorite pet themes, his love of surrealism, his love of provocation at its best and basest, his filmic powers reaching an apex. It’s strange watching an Aronofsky film without a requisite Clint Mansell score (despite Mansell working on all of his films, for this one he went with Arrival scribe Johann Johannson, but eventually cut the score entirely), but he wields silence like a weapon, allowing every creak and crash to stand out like the violation it represents. This is a case of supremely confident filmmaking divorced of regard for focus groups or audience demographics, a case of Paramount stepping out on a limb by giving this monster a wide release seemingly unfettered. It’s a challenging film, likely to be divisive among audiences and critics alike. But it perseveres as a singular piece of art, the sort of theater experience that won’t let you forget it for some time.