Darren Aronofsky’s mother! serves up an infernal feast of imagination and a sly exploration of the creative process itself. It lifts us to mounting plateaus of tension and just as we think we’ve got our bearings, it leaps to jaw-dropping extremes that stagger the senses and overwhelm the mind.
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a nameless couple living in a beautiful, secluded house in the middle of nowhere. He is a renowned poet struggling to come up with his next great idea. She is the devoted younger wife who has rebuilt the house from derelict ruins, all that was left after a disastrous fire. Their isolated life gets its first injection of stress when a stranger (Ed Harris) shows up at their door. He claims to be the new doctor in town and he’s scouting out lodgings. Without a second thought, the poet welcomes the doctor to stay with them much to his wife’s dismay and bewilderment. As she’s still puzzling over the identity and intentions of their unexpected intruder, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two sons each appear out of the blue to join the party.
After a series of inexplicable, escalating events, the strangers at last leave the house. Then, in a oddly provoked moment of passion, the poet forces himself on his wife and – voila! – we have a mother (to-be).
But the fun’s just begun. The second half of the film follows a similar dream-logic that defies any easy explanations – especially hard to summarize without spoiling the chain of increasingly macabre revelations. It’s probably alright to mention that the poet regains his creative mojo upon his wife’s pregnancy and sure enough – the fans come knocking again. With this second wave of visitors, however, things get way, way out of hand.
The narrative thread of mother! is deliberately tricky to follow. One of the film’s most effective ways to keep us disoriented is its perverse unwillingness to identify a “plot” in the traditional sense. The way events transpire and the erratic pathways that people enter into the picture are characterized by a casual, jagged randomness – seemingly without reason, certainly without mercy. You’re likely to find yourself in the same position as the wife/mother, confused and increasingly unsettled by the chaos of it all.
In the hands of a lesser director, such a detached and oblique approach to storytelling could be a recipe for pretentious disaster. Aronofsky, of course, has directed the holy F out of this thing. We’ve seen what he can do with non-linear, stream-of-consciousness narratives in movies like The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream. Here, he goes further and has delivered the hallucinatory cinematic head-trip we’ve been waiting to see him do: an immersive recreation of a full-blown waking nightmare.
As bad dreams usually do, this one begins benignly enough. There’s but a somewhat disconcerting note of chilly isolation when we first check out the surroundings. We find it strange that there’s nobody around but our brains will still try to grab onto some sort of context that can make sense of this setting. The arrivals of the initial house guests bring an unmistakable note of sinister intent. Or do they? When the chummy rapport of Bardem and Harris subverts our anxiety, we can’t quite decide if perhaps the wife is overreacting. Something about their behavior just doesn’t seem right, that’s for damn sure, but we can’t put our finger on it. Watching the way the men readily take over the space as they tease, confront, and disregard the lady of the house, we distinctly feel the helplessness of being trapped inside our own heads, tangled in a net of paranoia, exposed to the tyrannical whims of the subconscious.
But then it hits us. After a short respite that conveys a false sense of security, sheer panic takes hold, when we realize it’s all happening again.
Aronofsky gets the rhythm and texture of nightmares just right and, with a hypnotically odd voice that alienates the only sane person in the room, he puts us smack in the middle of the terror. It takes a remarkable flourish of masterful filmmaking to achieve this level of nerve-knotting viscerality. Building with relentless momentum, mother! reaches its insane peak in the final half hour, when literally all hell breaks loose and we feel every last bit of the pure, terrifying madness on screen. It’s astonishing.
Lawrence tackles the demanding balancing act of playing the straight character while keeping us intimately engaged. Dazed, petrified and constantly asking “What is happening?” she doesn’t have quite the rich character arc that Ellen Burstyn or Natalie Portman had in previous Aronofsky films. But she carries the film with formidable vulnerability-turned-vehemence, culminating in several blood-curdlingly explosive scenes. Bardem and Pfeiffer are dependably excellent. The former gets to revel in the mystique and charisma of an all-powerful creator-type down. The latter plays passive-aggressive like no other, reminding us with the few scenes she shares with Lawrence that, after 30 years in the business, she’s still one of the most watchable actresses anywhere.
Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is sensational, as always. The way his camera creeps along wherever Lawrence’s character goes with oppressive closeness is pivotal in making us feel trapped along with her in the claustrophobic atmosphere. And it’s the vigor of his camera that lends the scenes of murderous mayhem that perilous edge.
That the Academy lavished so much love on the decidedly Gothic mindfuck Black Swan, shows that its members are open to wild flights of horrific imagination. Despite the unfairly bad rap they sometimes get for being traditionalists, Oscar voters have always been willing to delve into dark realms whenever a visionary director is leading the way. While mother! at times may be several notches crazier than typical Oscar-friendly fare, let’s not forget that movies as recent as Precious, The Revenant, and Mad Max: Fury Road presented us with extreme and often lurid horrors as their Best Picture calling card. Aronofsky’s astonishing film will be no less gasp-inducing for today’s audiences as Psycho and The Exorcist were in their day. It’s also worth noting that unique, vision-driven films like this hold a special appeal for the director’s branch, which bodes well for broader acceptance.
As for its prospects at the Venice Film Festival, it remains to be seen how Annette Bening and her fellow jurors will react to a cinematic experience this trippy. For my money, a director prize is at this stage very likely. If the jury is feeling freaky, a second Golden Lion for Aronofsky could very well happen too.