3.5 out of 5 stars.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a mainstream movie in theaters this year that is more insane than Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!”, or a movie that will make you feel more insane by the time the credits roll. The psychological horror film (an unusually arty release to come from a mainstream studio), is one big Biblical allegory challenges the viewer just as much as it does the characters on screen.
None of the characters in the film have proper names; they all go by generic titles. Jennifer Lawrence is Mother, a young woman married to a writer played by Javier Bardem (hey, at least their age difference is integrated into the story). They have recently moved into a huge old house in the country that Mother is working hard to renovate, while he is struggling to write his next piece. One evening, they are visited by a strange man (Ed Harris) and later his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) who initially appear to be people new to the area searching for a place to stay. The husband gladly welcomes them into their home, but his wife wants them to leave, as their behavior becomes increasingly strange.
Aronofsky’s film can be divided into two distinct halves: the visit, which sets the course of events for the rest of the film, and Mother’s pregnancy. The film is supposed inspired by “Rosemary’s Baby,” and the similarities between the two stories are all over the place, and become more prevalent as the film races toward its wild third act. In a way, “Mother!” could be viewed as a companion piece to “Rosemary’s Baby,” providing an opposing take on a similar story. In the latter film, Rosemary gives birth to Satan’s son; in “Mother!”, the God-like qualities he exhibits are undeniable (although you could say that some of the unfolding events push him closer to the devil). As a writer, he creates; he puts words together in a way that brings his ideas to life, and inspires thousands to the point of fanaticism. This prompts a whole other discussion about how the film associates the power of words with the power of God, but in this film, he is God, or a god or similar figure. Even in the credits, his characters is listed merely as “Him.” Not man, not husband, not father, not poet: “Him,” a pronoun that implies that there could be no one else who compares to Him.
His powers are contrasted with those of a mother’s love—a power of love and protection that you could say trumps his powers of creation. Lawrence’s performance in the titular role is really quite stunning (despite the fact that she spends so much of the first half of the movie running around asking people what they are doing in her house and please, do not sit on the sink, it hasn’t been braced yet), as her character begins rather meek; she obeys Him, and even when he and their houseguests begin acting strange, it is a long time before she finally stands up to him. Even so, she spends much of the first half of the movie pleading; pleading with her husband not to leave her, but to make their guests leave, and pleading with her guests not to do this or go in that room or talk about this personal matter. It isn’t until she actually becomes a mother that she becomes a fighter as well, her sole purpose being to sacrifice for her baby. In this way, her character can also be compared with the woman played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and older but much more confident person who has the power in her relationships with her husband and her two sons (portrayed by real life brothers Brian and Domnhall Gleeson in a brief but critical appearance). Even so, Mother’s love for Him burns up until the very end, until she has given him all of her love, but gotten nothing in return.
“Mother!” can be exhausting to watch, although it does more than enough to hold the viewer’s attention so that interest never wavers. A lot of that has to do with the visuals as well as the story. Despite so much of the film existing in a dreary, almost colorless world, it is pulsing with life, and not just from the characters. The house that Him and Mother live in is a character as well; quite literally, the walls breathe, and the floors bleeds. The building is the site of that aforementioned deranged finale, somehow managing to contain an explosive exploration of the rise and fall of a civilization over the course of a couple of days within its walls. Aronofsky shoots the bustling action of that finale using a lot of close-ups and mid-shots and often following Mother, never giving the viewer the full picture but still allowing us to get a sense of the madness.
The problem with “Mother!” is that, for all the allegory and thought-provoking material and mad scenes it presents, it doesn’t feel very inspired. It isn’t difficult to figure out where the film is going, even if how it gets there isn’t like anything many people besides Aronofsky could imagine (much of this is due to a bit of foreshadowing at the start of the film that makes it easier to put all the pieces together as the film progresses further). It does a great job of immediately building up anxiety through the mounting tense situations, but there’s never an “a-ha” moment, where the viewer starts to get a sense of things coming together, or starts to feel something other than an odd mixture of suspense and confusion. The film moves through the paces without a lot of feeling, which is interesting when you consider that, if this movie is really based on Aronofsky’s thoughts about the universe and mankind, he clearly has a lot of feelings. It seems as if Aronofsky threw everything he hates about society into one film, and that’s a lot to cover in the space of two hours. Take out the Biblical aspects and you have a commentary on celebrity and obsession, while Mother is the embodiment of every horrible, misogynistic thing that could happen to a woman. It makes it hard to absorb everything that is happening in this movie, and even harder to take it all apart and examine it. But, despite all the frustrations it creates, “Mother!” the amalgamation of all these things is somehow part of why the film works, contributing to the franticness, surrealism, and overall feeling of hopelessness that permeates almost every scene. The fact that this movie even exists is quite amazing, and people will either love it or hate it; regardless, it will sure give viewers a lot to talk—and think—about for a long time to come.
Runtime: 121 minutes. Rated R.