You don’t so much watch the latest from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan) as you endure it, and I’m not saying that in an entirely negative fashion. It actually seems specifically made in such a way that there are different stages where you’ll either bail on the film entirely and hate it from that point forward, or you throw your shoulder into it and push your way to the end. And if you make it to the end relatively unscathed, you’ll have a hell of a story to tell your friends.
Before I tell you what mother! is, let me tell you what it is not. It is not a new take on Rosemary’s Baby, although it’s easy to see Aronofsky tapping into his admiration for the earlier works of Roman Polanski—films that made you wonder if the female protagonist was suffering from some mental illness or if the paranoid delusions she was having were based in reality.
mother! is also not a conventional horror film; it may not even be a horror film at all, depending on how loose your definition of the genre might be. The film actually embodies a few genres—thriller, family drama, and a few others that don’t quite have names yet but involve chaos, religious fanaticism, the perils of celebrity, and so much more—all in the name of making us take a good, hard look at ourselves and our propensity to burn it all to the ground (or perhaps “drain the swamp”) rather than work together to repair what needs fixing.
From where I sit, mother! is actually two films. The first half involves a married couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) living in a lovely home in an undisclosed location. Even their names (“Mother” “Him”) are a mystery. If I’m not mistaken, the story never leaves the grounds of the home. He’s a famous writer who hasn’t actually written anything in years, while she has spent the time since they married rebuilding his childhood home after a fire nearly burned it to the ground. He’s eternally grateful for her hard work, but at the same time, he secretly blames her for his not getting any writing done.
One random evening, a Man (Ed Harris) who says he’s a doctor shows up to their front door, thinking it’s a rental property where he can hole up and finish some very important medical writing. As much as Lawrence is against the idea of having a stranger sleeping overnight in the work-in-progress home, she tolerates it because her husband seems to want it, and when they find out that the Man is also an admirer of Bardem’s writing, they practically give him the keys to their kingdom. The next day, the Man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, and now there are two strangers staying with them.
The first half of mother! feels like an exaggerated but highly effective riff on the idea that there are just some people who don’t like having guests, particularly long-term visitors with no clear exit strategy. For the first hour or so, Aranofsky has every element of the film brilliantly teeter on the brink of danger without fully committing. Is this couple a threat, or could they feasibly bring a threatening force into the house?
That question seems fully answered when the guest couple’s grown sons—real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson—arrive in a heated state. We are reminded that Lawrence has spent a great deal of time fixing up this old house, making it the perfect place for her husband to relax and write, but he seems the most inspired when there are people around and activity throughout the house. She wants a sanctuary; he wants a commune. And she grows increasingly frustrated with each decision he makes about visitors without consulting her.
The events of the film’s first hour inspire a burst of creative energy in the writer. Time passes, and he finally finishes his newest work as she repairs the damage done to the house. And what begins as a somewhat personal statement about isolationist tendencies turns into, well, an actual vision of hell. And as we’re dragged deeper and deeper into Lawrence’s chaotic existence (she’s also become very pregnant at this point in the story), Aranofsky weaves in themes about the perils of celebrity, hero worship, religious fanaticism, and self absorption, all of which seem to revolve around Bardem’s popularity and need to be adored by those who are moved by his work.
To talk in too much detail about mother!’s second half would be a betrayal to anyone even considering seeing it. I know many of you won’t even consider seeing a film unless you basically know all the twist and turns and surprises featured within, but mother! isn’t that kind of movie. It would literally be impossible to describe how utterly and completely it goes places rarely visited by other filmmakers and actors. I honestly can’t believe that a major studio is releasing this, but I have to give Paramount credit for going whole-hog on the release of this one and risking alienating a massive percentage of those who attend.
As I mentioned early on, this movie is something of an endurance test, and I genuinely think Aronofsky has designed it to break most viewers. It’s not confusing (maybe a little) or especially graphic (maybe a little more) or particularly scary, but it is a sensory assault unlike anything you’ve ever seen or experienced, I’m guessing. And at some point, you’ll want it to stop, which may sound like I didn’t like it. Not true at all. I didn’t know until I watched mother! that it was possible for a film to be (by design) a thoroughly unpleasant experience and still remain enticing, even poetic. There are moments here that are quite lovely, but Aronofsky plants us in the head of Mother while she is being traumatized by what is being done to her home.
I was positively riveted by the sensation of watching this film, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to many of you (how’s that for a review?). I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it at home, if only because you’d have the ability to turn it on and off or take breaks. To fully appreciate the mother! experience, you must see it in a theater, where you are forced to commit. You either engage with it or you run screaming from the theater. There is no in between, and there are certainly no breaks. If you relish new sensations and a fresh supply of new fodder for anxiety dreams, then put your faith in Darren Aronofsky (as you likely have many times before) and take this trip.