Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is gruelling and gruesome. It’s a deliberately pretentious art-house movie, cast with some of the biggest stars on the planet. It’s horrifying on many levels—and yet there’s something deeply admirable about it. Whatever the opposite of “crowd-pleaser” is, this movie is it.
mother! begins with imagery that echoes throughout the film: a woman engulfed in flames, a house that gradually shifts from destroyed to restored, and what appears to be a large jewel, carefully placed on a special stand by a pleased-looking Javier Bardem. The starting point for the story, as anyone who’s seen the film’s trailer can surmise, concerns a married couple (Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence) whose seemingly tranquil life in the country is upset when first a stranger (Ed Harris), and then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), become their unexpected houseguests.
Although that’s not entirely accurate. Only Lawrence’s character, named “Mother” in the credits, is miffed by this invasion; she’d prefer to continue lovingly, single-handedly refurbishing the house and tending to the needs of her husband in peace. By contrast, Bardem’s character (“Him”), a poet with writer’s block, welcomes the interruption, even as the strangers (“Man” and “Woman”) reveal themselves to be needy slobs with major boundary issues.
All of mother! takes place from Lawrence’s point of view. Nearly every scene is dominated by close-ups of her face. It’s suffocating, and that serves a purpose; we soon surmise that her attachment to the house may be a physical one, since she never sets foot outside, and she’s able to sense some kind of life-force thrumming in the walls and from the eerily alive basement furnace. Though the house is lovely, with its vintage fixtures and adornments, there’s something out of place—it’s vaguely haunted, but not by a ghost or anything we can easily suss out. The air drips with tension, dread, and malevolence, far beyond any shit stirred up by the Man and the Woman.
That said, the pair does manage to bring a huge amount of chaos into the house, and they’re thoroughly encouraged by Bardem’s character. Being waited on by a beautiful, much younger woman who says things like “I want to create a paradise” while toiling on home improvements and gourmet meals isn’t enough to satisfy his needs. He requires constant inspiration and respect for his genius, and his ego is enormous—he lives only to be admired and adored, even if it’s by large groups of rowdy people who terrorise his fragile wife in the process.
To reveal any more would rob any potential audience member of experiencing mother!’s phantasmagorical excesses as they unfold and escalate to heights that would be shockingly hilarious... if they weren’t causing Lawrence’s character so much trauma. (Rarely has the phrase “They’re ruining everything!” had so much painful weight.) As the title—cheeky exclamation point and all—suggests, a baby eventually enters the picture, under circumstances that make Rosemary’s Baby (a film mother! openly evokes in its marketing) look like a breezy rom-com in comparison.
mother! is quite obviously a heavy-handed metaphor (the character non-names are a dead giveaway), though its ultimate meaning is never made completely clear. Just a cursory journey around the internet will turn up theories galore. Perhaps it’s an allegory about climate change, and “Mother” = mother Earth, ravaged by human beings who callously disrespect the environment she so generously provided. Perhaps it’s a statement about the inherent selfishness of artists—a mirror on Aronofsky and anyone else who requires creative stimulation to survive, as well as the devastation they feel when something they pour their soul into ends up being savaged by the unfeeling public.
“Nothing is ever enough,” Mother screams at her husband, despairing that he’ll ever find true satisfaction. Similarly, mother! demands a lot from the viewer. For some, it’ll be an exhilarating mindfuck, and they’ll leave muttering, “I can’t believe a big studio had the balls to make this.” For others, it’ll be much more they could possibly be prepared for.