mother! is a scorched-earth confession that still gets its sins wrong. Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), the movie cuts itself open to reveal a tortured, exploitative relationship between muse and artist, to explore the blood and bowels that can be part of the creative process. Yet even as it admits this dysfunction, mother! can’t fully deny it. The movie’s muse still exists only to serve.
mother! is bookended by a fantastic, fiery vision: after a shot of a face in flames, we see Javier Bardem standing amidst the ruins of a charred country mansion. Bardem places a large jewel on a shelf and suddenly the house repairs itself, complete with bright paint and solid walls. We soon learn that Bardem—identified in the credits only as “Him”—is a revered poet struggling with a case of writer’s block. His wife (played by Jennifer Lawrence and identified as “Mother”) has been working to renovate the home, while also keeping a careful eye on her husband’s progress. The unease between them only increases when they receive an unexpected visit from a stranger (Ed Harris), who is followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The poet welcomes the intrusions; his wife decidedly does not. And as more uninvited guests arrive, mother! goes from being a dark domestic comedy straight into the Black Swan looney bin (with enough dark humor to distinguish it from Aronofsky’s earlier picture).
mother! opens with Bardem but belongs to Lawrence (or at least it should). From the moment she awakens alone in bed and wanders through the house searching for him, the camera barely leaves her side. Extreme close-ups analyze her every minute expression; when she moves, it seems to sit on her shoulder. Thanks to the evocative sound design, we also hear the house as she does: the heightened whir of the refrigerator, the ominous rumble of the boiler, the squeak of every step on the rustic wood floors. There are moments when Lawrence’s wife rests her head against a wall and seems to be able to peer into it, as Aronofsky cuts to an ethereal image of what could be a nebula, an embryo, or a beating heart.
Even as it admits dysfunction, mother! can’t fully deny it.
As things get increasingly outlandish with each new arrival (real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson show up as violently squabbling siblings), Lawrence is left with little to do but react in increasing surprise and then horror. Thank goodness she’s an extremely skilled nonverbal actor, something acknowledged during a meta moment in which Pfeiffer’s “guest” asks a rudely personal question and then correctly guesses the answer based on Lawrence’s expression. Bardem, meanwhile, deftly slips back and forth between the two sides of his onscreen persona: mellifluous romantic and looming physical threat. The way he repeatedly woos his wife into opening up their home (thereby exposing herself) is at once swooning, comic, and sinister.
Eventually, however, the metaphors at work become thuddingly literal, which leaves mother! with little to do but amp up the insanity—something Aronofsky is particularly skilled at. (Spoilers ahead.) The body horror becomes more explicit, so that even damage to the house appears as bloody wounds. The maternal element hinted at in the title comes about in a gleefully ghoulish way that combines Rosemary’s Baby with Jesus’ birth. Lawrence’s muse then endures an elongated sequence of horrific punishment once she fulfills her purpose. If I have any qualms about mother!, it’s that she has also fulfilled Aronofsky’s.