For his entire career, Darren Aronofsky has made viscerally intense films centered on people spiraling into psychological breakdowns. His 1998 debut, Pi serves as a modern homage to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and revolves around a mathematician losing his marbles over cracking a code. In Requiem for a Dream, he paints a mosaic of lost souls whose lifelong ambitions succumb to their nightmarish addictions. The Wrestler and Black Swan are both portraits of individuals who sacrifice their bodies and minds for the sake of their art. Even the characters in his more spiritual work, The Fountain and Noah, are nearly driven mad through their pursuits of enlightenment.
mother! is the most ferocious descent into hell that Aronofsky’s crafted so far, and that’s really saying a lot. (The exclamation point at the end of the title is all too appropriate.) Perhaps it’s because, while his previous characters are all stunted by the world they inhabit, their downfalls inexorably stem from being unable to cope with their own personal demons. Here, Jennifer Lawrence’s titular protagonist is put through the ringer more so than any other tragic figure in Aronofsky’s filmography, but she’s also the most sane of mind, and the horrors she faces are ultimately more external than internal.
When the film opens, Mother is perfectly content refurnishing an old house that she and her husband, credited only as Him (Javier Bardem), currently inhabit. (In case you can’t tell by now, this is a film in which nobody has a real name.) Him is a poet suffering from immense writer’s block, while Mother is perfectly content with being his subservient housewife. There’s no context as to whom these people are, how they met, or what drives them beyond Him’s artistic pursuits and Mother’s unconditional love.
One night, there’s a knock at their door. An orthopedic surgeon, Man (Ed Harris) has seemingly mistaken their home for a bed and breakfast, but Him insists that he stay the night anyway. Clearly uncomfortable with this proposition, Mother nonetheless subsides to her husband’s request. Making matters even more complicated, Man’s alcoholic wife, Woman (a deliciously spiteful Michelle Pfeiffer) also arrives unannounced the following morning, who makes her assertive spouse seem like Ned Flanders by comparison.
Revealing anything further would spoil the fun, but to say things get weird is putting it mildly. What begins as a darkly hilarious farce crescendos into a phantasmagoric freakout unlike anything Aronofsky’s ever filmed; a climax so audaciously deranged, even by his own standards, that I could hardly believe my eyes.
Gorgeously shot on Super 16mm by the great Matthew Libatique, the cinematography is at once invasive and sympathetic. Much like how he confined Natalie Portman within the tight compositions of Black Swan, Libatique captures Lawrence through a series of claustrophobic close-ups and over-the-shoulder tracking shots, placing us within her highly-strung mindset. By the film’s apocalyptic conclusion, it feels as if Aronofsky’s lens has morphed into a giant magnifying glass, using its shallow depth of field to set everything ablaze.
Supposedly, Lawrence dislocated a rib due to hyperventilating on set, and it’s not difficult to see why. In addition to inhabiting nearly every frame of the film, the abuse that her character endures is mercilessly brutal; Aronofsky’s reliance on her to be a beacon of light in a mouth of madness is as physically demanding as it is emotionally draining. It’s her best performance since her breakout turn in Winter’s Bone.
Bardem and Harris are both unnerving as the dubious men, but whenever Pfeiffer’s on screen, the film is her oyster. Every glare shoots daggers and every line seethes with venom; she sinks her teeth into this juicy supporting role with precise comic timing and basks in the lurid campiness of it all. After a five-year hiatus, I hope she never leaves us again.
Aronofsky’s fingerprints are all over this film, but he wears his influences on his sleeve. Even the film’s marketing mirrors the one-sheet of Rosemary’s Baby, and the slow-burn structure pays tribute to other earlier works by Roman Polanski, such as the equally gonzo Repulsion with Catherine Deneuve. There are also traces of David Cronenberg’s body horror, Brian De Palma’s formal style, Lars von Trier’s masochism and even a clever homage to the notorious toilet scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation swirling within this cauldron of insanity.
Filled to the brim with cryptic meanings, mother! is rife with biblical allegories, but I found it to be most effective as a scathing commentary on gender roles. Lawrence is manipulated throughout the entirety of the film’s 120-minute runtime, increasingly shoved under the thumb of patriarchal society until it becomes all too much to bear. “They won’t listen,” she sobs to Bardem. Men never do.
It’s a theme that Aronofsky’s delved into before, primarily with Black Swan, when Vincent Cassell’s unscrupulous ballet instructor pushes Portman to her breaking point for his own artistic aspirations. But Portman’s heart was in her dance, too; in mother!, Lawrence’s heart burns only for Bardem, who sacrifices her love for the sake of his own egotistical work. He uses her for inspiration, then throws her to the wolves for the price of fame. (The fact that Aronofsky and Lawrence are currently dating as a result of this collaboration is a bit, uh, jarring, to say the least.)
mother! is not a film for everyone. Many who go in expecting a traditional horror film are bound to leave shaken, outraged and deeply disturbed by just how many buttons it manages to push. Yet, through this blistering vision of humanity in decline, there’s no denying that Aronofsky is at the peak of his powers here, delivering what could be one of the most feverishly demented films to ever emerge from a mainstream studio. Not a single person at the screening I attended left the theater until the end credits rolled out. It’s likely that you won’t either.