To say Darren Aronofsky’s mother! knows no subtlety is a truth greater than any Bible tale that the film draws from. In a film no less ambitious than his decade-old feature of love throughout time, The Fountain, the director creates a house of horrors that is as expansive as it is claustrophobic. But as we all know: a house is not a home. And the Edenic paradise its protagonist, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), hopes to create will soon be full of the most parasitic entity of all time: humanity.
Characters don’t have names, they have labels: Mother, Him (Javier Bardem), Man (Ed Harris), Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Oldest Son (Domhnall Gleeson), Younger Brother (Brian Gleeson). The list goes on and on with characters like Drunkard, Herald, Plunderer, Novitiate, Zealot, and Philanderer all joining in on the discomfort. With each individual that steps foot into Mother’s home, the discomfort grows. Comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby are warranted, notably in the first hour where Aronofsky’s deliberate pacing allows us, and his protagonist, to wallow in anxiety, much like Roman Polanski did with his feature. It’s hard to watch a female character exist in near-silence, in invisibility, while their male partner makes all the decisions for them.
mother! uses that as its momentum. It’s an ongoing assault of spatial invasion, playing with audience anxiety as much as it can. The sound design, almost entirely devoid of a score, makes every single noise count. It forces the viewer to become attune to the sounds of a house in distress; a footstep against a board, the creaking of a counter that isn’t properly supported and has people on it, the snap of wood being broken. As the film shifts gears, so does the sound, rising from a pure calm to a cacophony of horror where human destruction is the only instrument.
It’s frustrating to discuss mother! without spoilers, but its IMDb description does the trick: “A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.” That’s a simplistic description of what goes on within the film and doesn’t take into account the numerous biblical tales that Aronofsky is playfully throwing together to tell his story. Lawrence, whose stony expressions are oft-critiqued, doesn’t simply nail the role of doting wife here. In a film so dedicated to critiquing male narcissism and the people who blindly subscribe to the idea of a God, she serves as our entry point. Every ounce of pain is visible in her face when shit gets real and her winces, her screams, her confusion, are a mirror for the audience’s own frustration.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique holds the camera as close to Lawrence as possible, following her as she weaves her way through this home in the middle of nowhere. The framing of her within this home when she’s on her own is reflective of tranquility, but when Libatique and Aronofsky go for chaos, they don’t spare a single resource. At times it feels like there’s endless humans on screen, their arms, legs, and faces, all becoming a jumble of insanity where only Mother’s face remains distinct.
As much chaos as there is on screen, it’s always clear that Aronofsky has a full grasp of the images he’s putting up there. The pulsating heart of a home gone cold, the almost serpentine glare of Pfeiffer in the best role she’s had in years, an explosion of violence against a woman who’s long dealt with microagressions, Bardem’s dead stare in a stand-off that embodies male entitlement like no other. It’s all these pieces and more that make mother! as captivating as it is. It’s ridiculous, sure, often even laughably so, but it’s effective. And as a film that basically amounts to a crash course through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in the guise of a psychological thriller, it’s bound to fascinate and frustrate in equal amounts.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Darren Aronofsky; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Domhnall, Brian Gleeson & Kristen Wiig; 121 minutes.
mother! is now playing in theaters everywhere.