Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is a film that needs to sit for a while before your brain can really get to grips with what you’ve just seen. It batters you senseless for around two hours before delivering an ending that’s half genius, half nonsense before unceremoniously dumping you back into the world. I stand by giving it a 3 star rating in my immediate reaction, Venice Film Festival review for One Room With A View, but with extra time for the film to settle, I feel I have to revise my opinion. I still can’t go as far as the 5 star raves seen elsewhere, but this is still a better film than I originally gave it credit for.
Once all its themes coalesced in my mind, it became clear that Mother! is not just a daffy horror-thriller – with a gonzo style that more than earns the title’s exclamation mark – but more of a primal scream. It’s a savage, roaring indictment of religion, celebrity, and the male creative ego that spirals its characters into the depths of hell, never caring whether the audience is ready or willing to take that journey. Easily the maddest film to come out of a mainstream studio this year, and probably most other years, there’s no telling what anyone’s reaction to it will be, but it really needs to be seen to be believed.
Explaining what Mother! is about without spoilers is a difficult task, and a lot of its power comes from the audience never having any idea about what’s coming next. At a basic level, it’s about the collapse of the carefully constructed lives of an unnamed couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem), who have their idyllic tranquillity intruded upon by two mysterious guests (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer). This starts an unstoppable train of mania and evil that slows down towards the middle before revving itself up to light speed come the finale.
What seems like an homage to Rosemary’s Baby, with Lawrence’s character’s pregnancy having the whiff of darkness about it, soon spins away from that comparison. In fact, it’s barely comparable to anything in the cinematic canon, bearing more of a resemblance to the artworks of Goya and Bosch, and even then putting a slick modern sheen on them. Jennifer Lawrence’s presence suggests a mainstream appeal, but Aronofsky makes precisely zero concessions to any sort of crowdpleasing.
Chief among the things that will upset audiences is perhaps the wringer that Lawrence is sent through. Verbal and physical assaults, the panic of being trapped, and emotional torment on a biblical scale – these are not the injustices and humiliations we expect to see heaped upon one of the world’s biggest stars (especially when there’s no way that Mother! will play for awards). With everything told entirely from Lawrence’s perspective, this is not as gratuitous or exploitative as it might have been, and the moments where she can finally, and violently, grab hold of some agency in the story are thunderously cathartic.
Mainly reducing its cast to either fearful hyperventilating or unreadable menace, Mother! is hardly an actors’ showcase, but the star wattage of the leads does add another layer of power and subtext to proceedings. Lawrence is at her best as her character starts to get to grips with the gravity of her dire situation, each shift into a deeper state of fury and fear. However, as demanded by the conventions of the genre, most characters act like idiots in order to allow the horror to unfold as it must, and there are more than a few ‘oh, come on!’ moments.
Nothing can prepare you for what’s around the next corner in Mother!. The deliberately vague marketing has kept the real premise of the film in the dark, and even while you’re watching it, the next rung in its ladder of depravity always comes as a surprise. It’s a draining experience, and plenty of people will find their breaking point well before the conclusion. Some ridiculous lines and a disregard for conventional structure keep Mother! firmly in the realm of test-your-patience cinema, but if you can muster up the strength for it, it’s a unique piece of brash, gleefully uncivilised art.