Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is one of those rare movies — like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible — that is impeccably constructed, technically brilliant, boasts outstanding performances, is absolutely brimming with artistry and ambition, but is so punishing and painful to watch that it feels impossible to recommend to a friend for fear that they’ll ultimately blame their inevitable, crippling, post-movie PTSD on you.
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise to those familiar with Aronofsky’s work; many of his films, like the powerful but nauseating Requiem for a Dream, are strenuous and icky, to say the least. Steeped in twisted symbolism and unnerving imagery, mother! fits snugly into the filmmaker’s catalogue and will no doubt alienate many, if not most, moviegoers who buy their tickets expecting a witty thriller about a contentious mother/daughter relationship. This is a grotesque, two-horned beast of a marital drama, a nightmarish vision of emotional abandonment and psychological abuse, all for the sake of art.
Following the quaint-turned-chaotic life a couple living in a countryside mansion, the film is a layered metaphor for the age-old artist/muse convention, in which Aronofsky has been a participant. The story circles the idea slowly at first and then gradually builds momentum until it spirals nearly out of control, with each act more deranged and calamitous than the last. While interpretations of the twisty parable will likely vary slightly from person to person, what seems clear is that Aronofsky made the film as a way to address and work through some personal demons, though the guy seems to be a bit too hard on himself. There’s a difference between self-critique and self-loathing, and with mother! he ventures deep into the latter.
Javier Bardem plays “Him”, a poet plagued with writer’s block and a proxy for Aronofsky himself. As personal as the movie seems to be, it does not center on Him, but rather His Her, or “Mother”, played by Jennifer Lawrence. While He is constantly entrenched in his writing (or lack thereof), She remodels and redecorates their Victorian home, experimenting with different paints and rugs and fixtures to ultimately create what she calls “paradise”. The friction between them feels like familiar domestic drama fare at the outset: He’s loving but distant, She feels alone, undervalued, and overworked in her own home. When an older couple show up at their doorstep (played by Ed Harris and a devilish Michelle Pfeiffer), the tone blackens and tensions rise, but it’s still familiar territory.
Then things get weird. More and more strangers barge into the house (either invited by Him and not Her, or not invited at all), treating it as their own, extolling Him and ignoring Her as they rearrange the furniture and repaint the walls. Then they smash the furniture, smash the walls, and smash past Her as they stomp up the stairs and into forbidden rooms. What pervades as we watch the impudent invaders trash the place is a sickening feeling of personal violation on behalf of Her. Lawrence is well cast here; she’s got some of the most expressive eyes in the business, and she makes us feel every bit of her frustration, anger, and terror as she watches her would-be paradise burn to the ground. If anything, the young actress is over-equipped, capable of handling far more complexity than the underwritten role requires.
Ratcheting up the insanity of the later scenes is the cinematic presentation, which is typically top-notch for Aronofsky and co. The hellish imagery is presented largely from Lawrence’s perspective, with the camera staying uncomfortably tight behind her shoulder, limiting our view. The resulting sense of claustrophobia and disorientation is paralyzing. The sound design contributes as much as the visuals; every floorboard creak and scream reverberate throughout the house, forcing you to anxiously wonder which room each mysterious noise is coming from. This is powerful, often painful, paranoia-inducing cinema.
It’s difficult to discuss mother! in detail without spoiling the experience. Most of the plot developments after the first act are genuinely shocking, and they cumulatively service Aronofsky’s core conceit so specifically and uniquely that revealing them would be a disservice. What’s safe to say is that the absurdity, brutality, and disturbing nature of the final act is so extreme that the movie is destined to disgust general audiences and even perturb open-minded cinephiles.
Most moviegoers won’t find much to like about Aronofsky’s psychotic, fever-dream allegory. The central metaphor is fascinating, but rather than deepening as the movie progresses, it simply gets louder and more outlandish. At the same time, to say mother! is poorly made or ill conceived would be off base.