1. Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker who will never meet you halfway. He will instead grab you by the throat and drag you where he wants to go, or he’ll kill both of you trying. At his peak, his films are pulsating, horrifying fever dreams in which he grasps on to One Big Idea—the totality of addiction, obsession for the sake of one’s art, self-mutilation as self-purification—and shakes it until there’s blood everywhere and the whole theater is engulfed in flames. His films are not subtle, but who has time for subtlety? The world is on fire, people! Aronofsky’s willingness to look ridiculous for the sake of his art—his inability to not swing for the fences every time out—is one of his most endearing qualities. His nightmares must be your nightmares: At his best, he’s Bad Acid Trip Hitchcock. But there are limits to how far one is willing to follow him down his lunatic rabbit holes. I might humbly submit that that limit is mother!
2. mother! follows an unnamed couple—Aronfosky is in too deep to actually name his characters here—listed in the credits merely as “Mother” and “Him.” The “mother,” played by Jennifer Lawrence, is a bit of a nervous wreck from the get-go, living in an isolated massive home with her poet-husband (Javier Bardem), who years earlier was a poet so beloved that he inspired a near-religion but now is blocked after a mysterious tragedy in this home, which Mother has rebuilt for him while he attempts to write. They are tentative and halting with each other; something’s wrong, but we can’t tell quite what. Out of nowhere, a visitor to their home: an older man (Ed Harris), who is ill and claims he was lost out looking for his bed and breakfast but turns out to be a dedicated fan of Him’s poetry. The next day, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, eyeing Mother suspiciously and making herself a little too much at home. Then there are others who come. There are always others who come. Meanwhile, Mother notices oddities starting to burble up from within her house, from a scary red blob in the toilet to a disappearing and reappearing hole in her floor to a furnace that seems to growl red menace. And it keeps getting worse.
3. One of the keys to Aronofsky’s most daring, aggressive work (Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, namely, still his best two films, with The Wrestler right behind) is that as outlandish and over-the-top as they might be, they’re still always tethered to the real world: Part of what’s so scary is that you can never quite tell what’s real and what isn’t. But in mother!, we’re off in Cracker Jacks Bananas land pretty much from the get-go. Something’s obviously wrong—seriously, profoundly, oh shit oh shit oh shit wrong—and the only real mystery is whether it’s all in Mother’s head, whether someone is purposely tormenting her, or both. I’m not sure that answer ever entirely gets answered, but the movie is too busy flooring it off the cliff to pay the question all that much mind anyway. Aronofsky can be a moving, almost disorienting stylist, but he’s all blunt force trauma here: As the world around Mother gets more and more insane, he shoves your face in it so repeatedly, yet to no real understandable end, that your frustration increases as rapidly as your unease. What is all this headed toward? To what end is all this noise and chaos coming to?
4. The answer, as much as we get one, is more standard issue that one might hope, and it leaves one with the discouraging sense that all this sound and fury was more about Aronofsky wrestling with his personal demons than leaving us with any sort of tangible takeaway. (I’ll be careful of spoilers, but there’s a lyric in U2’s “The Fly” that essentially says the same thing as mother!, but in a lot less time. Better riff, too.) Aronofsky hasn’t lost his sense of creeping dread—you could take away everything from him, but you can never take that—and the movie is never dull, but it does take an awfully long time to get around to what it has to say, and I’d be loathe to say it was worth it. Aronofsky puts you through the ringer, to say the very least, and he produces some images that are as horrifying as anything he’s ever shown us before. But for the first time, it feels less impassioned and urgent, and more like a party trick.
5. It is to Lawrence’s eternal credit that she sticks with this all the way through: She’s asked to do things that most directors wouldn’t even think of asking their lead actresses to do. She commands the screen as always, but this role is maybe a little too passive for her. You keep expecting her to rise up, to unleash herself from the chains the film has her in and start pounding some fools. Lawrence is capable of many things, but Neurotically Stricken is maybe not among her strengths; she is not particularly believable as “stricken.” But she’s hardly the problem here. Aronofksy is one of the most overwhelming talented filmmakers working, a guy as skilled as anyone at playing the audience like a piano since the guy who originated the phrase. But to witness mother!, he is running out of things to say, and thus burrowing inward, somewhere between the navel and the pelvis. Usually, even when his films make you want to look away in revulsion, you can’t help thinking about them, and wanting to experience them once more, anew. But I don’t ever want to see mother! again.
Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Release Date: September 13, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.