‘mother!’ Review: Darren Aronofsky’s Hellish Nightmare Is His Most Insane Movie Yet
It would be an understatement to call Darren Aronofsky’s mother! crazy. This movie is a balls-to-the-wall bonkers nightmare that feels like diving head-first into the fiery pits of hell. It more than earns its titular exclamation point; as a matter of fact, it could use at least six more of those, bolded in 50-point font. It’s a uniquely thrilling ride ribbed with shards of dark humor, but mother! is bound to be Aronofsky’s most divisive film yet. Though admittedly daring, Aronofsky’s latest is a self-indulgent melting pot exploding with too many ideas. It’s enthralling, and frustrating.
The nightmare begins as a contained psychological thriller, with Javier Bardem’s unnamed writer placing a crystal-like stone on a mantlepiece inside a decrepit, burnt-down home. Like magic, the stone suddenly brings the house back to life and out of the ashes emerges Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed wife. The married couple live in an isolated home where she spends her days renovating the house and he, a famed poet, struggles with writer’s block. Things begin to unravel when a man, played by Ed Harris, arrives on their doorstep. The poet, who’s warm but uncannily friendly, invites Harris’ character to stay over, and soon after the man’s wife arrives unannounced, played to icy perfection by Michelle Pfeiffer. Later the visiting couple’s adult sons arrive, played by real-life brothers Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson. And from there things get much, much weirder.
More uninvited guests keep arriving at the couple’s home, and mother! becomes a nerve-shredding watch with spurts of humor. The absurd incidents – from Lawrence’s wife discovering bodily organs in the toilet to an abrupt, vicious fight between two brothers – are so surreal I found myself alternately shuddering in terror and bursting into laughter. The first two acts follow Lawrence character down a vortex of paranoia, as she’s continually gaslit by everyone around her. She has haunting, woozy visions throughout the house, where a wilting heart beats within the walls. She tries to kick strangers out of her home when they refuse to leave, and she suffers from phantom pregnancy symptoms – just one of the film’s many allusions to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s like a terrible dream where everything looks normal but you know something is askew.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s immersive, dizzying imagery puts us inside the madness in Lawrence’s head, echoing the same style he used for Black Swan. His shaky, gliding camera follows Lawrence through corridors and up staircases in winding tracking shots, and evokes the claustrophobia of the house with tight, uncomfortable close-ups. Like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, Aronofsky’s style continually finds ways to twist your mind and stomach into knots, and it lingers with you long after.
In the film’s third act, Aronofsky plunges us straight into an inferno hellscape that can be described as nothing short of total insanity. Seriously, even if I were to tell you what happens in this finale, words couldn’t accurately capture the level of jaw-dropping, brain-imploding WTF-ery that ensues. But after two hours of utter chaos, you’re left wondering what it all really means, and why, exactly, Aronofsky put us through it. Unfortunately, he fails to connect all the dots of this ridiculous psychodrama, and we’re left with a handful of possible interpretations.
In the most literal sense, mother! is a not-so-subtle metaphor about the tortured artist’s creative process. Bardem’s poet is clearly a stand-in for Aronofsky, and through that lens mother! becomes a solipsistic treatise about what it means to be an artist and the monstrosity of the imploding male ego, less of a coherent story than a personal therapy session. That’s what I took away from the film, but you could dissect mother! for ages (and surely audiences will) and come up with a variety of readings. You could pinpoint the religious symbolism throughout – the Gleeson brothers as Cain and Abel, Harris and Pfeiffer’s couple as Adam and Eve, etc. – and view the film as a metaphor for creationism. Some may see it as a pitch black satire about the self-destructive nature of marriage, or as Aronofsky’s grim critique on the rotten selfishness of present-day humanity. On one hand, it’s refreshing that a film can be open to such a wild diversity of interpretations. But that overflow of ideas speaks to Aronofsky’s inability to know when to pull back and just chill.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss this film spoiler-free, but I will say that the finale returns to the first scene to explain the meaning behind Bardem and the crystal. It’s then that we realize the role Lawrence’s wife plays in his life, and in the entire world of the film: she was never the subject of this movie, but the object. She’s the muse to Bardem’s artist, who like many mothers, as Pfeiffer’s character laments earlier, must “give and give and give, and it’s just never enough” – and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest there’s a tinge of misogyny in the film’s patronizing attitude toward its female lead. It’s kind of shocking that an outspoken feminist like Lawrence, who’s dating Aronofsky in real-life, would star in a movie that so blatantly uses, abuses, and devalues its female protagonist.
As much as the film left me frustrated and as much as it doesn’t all work, there’s still a lot I admire about it. It’s the most ludicrous studio movie in years, a cinematic horror experience unlike any other, and the most ambitious work of Aronofsky’s career. Love it, hate it, or stuck somewhere in between, it’s something you simply need to see to believe.