Darren Aronofsky’s heady horror film mother! begins with a large and beautifully octagonal Victorian country house, encircled on all sides by tall grass and, beyond, by trees. There is no driveway or other obvious means of access—no evidence, really, of a world apart from this house. A young woman lives there with her older husband, a poet. She is played by Jennifer Lawrence and identified only as “mother,” though she does not yet have any children; he is played by Javier Bardem and identified as “him.” She spends her days cooking, cleaning, and meticulously restoring the house, which, we learn, had previously burned in a fire. (She is literally a “home-maker.”) He, meanwhile, spends his days brooding, fountain pen in hand, over a blank page. He was once a famous writer, but his words have abandoned him.
One night, a stranger (Ed Harris) shows up on their doorstep. He says he’s a doctor, and that he’d been told the house was a bed and breakfast. It isn’t, but Bardem’s character nonetheless invites him to stay the night. (“This house is too big for the two of us,” he declares.) To the consternation of Lawrence’s character, the two men spend the night drinking and smoking. It turns out that the stranger is a huge fan of the poet’s old work, and the latter is delighted and energized by this revelation.
The next day, a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) knocks on the door, and explains that she is the doctor’s wife. The poet invites her, too, to stay in the house indefinitely, over his own wife’s strenuous objections. This latest newcomer, after getting high on spiked lemonade, pries unpleasantly: That’s quite an age difference between you and your husband. Why aren’t you pregnant? Are you doing your part in the bedroom? If this all seems a bit rude, trust me when I say that these impositions are nothing compared to the ones yet to come. (The door chime in this home is certainly the most ominous since Tony Soprano caught a bullet at Holsten’s ice cream parlor.) Yet the poet seems to thrive on this accumulating attention, despite the escalating shock and dismay of his devoted wife.
It would be wrong to say more about the plot of mother! except to note that what begins as a quietly bucolic fable—albeit one in which menace looms—gradually spins out into a phantasmagoric horror show, stuffed to the seams with allegory. Why do the walls of the house beat like a heart when Lawrence’s character lays her hands on them? What’s in the golden elixir that she takes for her dizzy spells? Did something shriek and flee down the drain when she plunged that clogged toilet bowl? Why is her husband so obsessed with the mysterious crystal he keeps locked away in his study?
For its first half or more, I expected mother! to be a gothic nightmare in the manner of Poe or Chambers or Lovecraft, with healthy dollops of Kafka and Rosemary’s Baby thrown in for good measure. (I was hoping for the kind of movie that Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak aimed for but ultimately missed.) But Aronofsky’s ambitions are far larger and stranger, even by the standards of such previous head trips as Black Swan and Noah. This is a film of fierce and idiosyncratic intensity, a metaphor for subjects both vast and banal: on the one hand, gender roles, creativity, birth, and (as Aronofsky himself has attested) global warming; on the other, the symbiotic interplay between fandom and celebrity. Biblical allusions are woven throughout—Cain and Abel, a flood that resets the world, the birth of Christ—and the story is essentially told in two separate chapters that might as well be called testaments.
There’s a strong sense, too, of winking self-critique on Aronofsky’s part. Bardem’s emphatically male artist heaps indignity after indignity upon his wife in his craving for more fame, more love, more attention. It is, at a fictive remove, pretty much what Aronofsky does to his lead actress.
And if not for another bravura performance by that lead actress, the film might easily have collapsed under the weight of its own pretensions. Bardem and the rest of the cast are strong, but it is Lawrence’s groundedness and humanity that tether her director’s wilder fancies. It helps, too, that Aronofsky (who also wrote the screenplay) injects frequent doses of black humor into the proceedings. He never loses sight of the fact that, philosophical trappings aside, this is at its core a movie about the Worst House Guests Ever.
In the end, mother! is a film certain to be revered by some and reviled by others. And while I’d place myself mostly in the former camp, plenty of reasonable people will find themselves in the latter. This is a demanding film, and there is one grisly (though in no way gratuitous) twist near the end that will test the endurance even of those who appreciated what came before. So be forewarned: Aronofsky has made precisely the movie he set out to make. But it may very well not be the movie for you.