Whether it’s Jennifer Connelly’s desperate drug addict in Requiem for a Dream or Natalie Portman’s barmy ballerina in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky seems to draw an almost sadistic thrill from dragging his desirable female leads through hell. Even so, the torment inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Mother in the director’s latest psychological horror is beyond anything we’ve seen before.
A dense, deranged and distressingly breathtaking piece of art, it’s no wonder Mother! has polarised critics, with many praising it’s sickening beauty and others dismissing its befuddling plot as nothing more than auteuristic twaddle. The truth, as if often does in these cases, lies somewhere in the middle. Mother! is an undoubtedly astounding work of artistic vision, both horrific and mesmerising; but in his haste to disturb and disorientated his audience, Aronofsky loses sight of exactly what he’s trying to say.
The movie starts off in compelling fashion, resembling a slow-burn chamber piece as Lawrence’s Mother devotedly restores the previously gutted home she shares with her husband (Javier Bardem), a poet wrestling with his latest work. Their idyllic seclusion is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ed Harris’ wheezing doctor and, the next day, his boozed-up wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Invited to stay for as long as they like by Bardem, the destructive couple make themselves comfortable, breaking precious heirlooms and asking invasive questions. It’s not long before Mother starts to worry that her husband has opened the door to something far worse than passing strangers.
Aronofsky’s direction is masterfull in these early scenes, gently dialling up the tension and paranoia by drip-feeding jarring sounds (amplified by the absence of a soundtrack) and unsettling images as Mother’s anxieties take shape. And unsettling is most certainly the right word. Like Hogwarts, if J.K. Rowling had written the Harry Potter series while suffering a bad trip on LSD, the house has a mischievous life of its own. The walls shake, the doors don’t lock, and the floors ooze blood from human-like orifices. Despite her desire to make it a model home, Mother is a prisoner here, never leaving the confines of the house and shot either in tight close-up or from her own dizzying perspective. It’s a claustrophobic experience, but also an exhilarating one.
Not that any of it prepares you for a brutal and bewildering final act that’s the closest thing to an actual living nightmare ever committed to film. Time seems to lose all meaning as the walls shift and mutate in the blink of an eye and all manner of frightening apparitions storm the scene, culminating in one sequence so vile and vicious, it will likely be too grotesque for many.
The technical skill on display here is impressive, with Aronofsky seamlessly mashing together a discordant collection of genres and influences. Yet, as his visual ambitions expand and become weirder, he loses sight of his story. Mother! works best as an intimate study of maternal anxiety, with Lawrence powerless to prevent the dangerous forces of the world from invading her perfect home and laying ruin to everything she holds dear.
But as Aronofsky’s roller-coaster of bizarre despair shifts into overdrive, he over complicates matters by throwing even more ideas into the mix. Religion, family, sexuality and the crumbling of civilisation are all exposed and plastered across the screen. Still, Aronofsky saves his most scathing work for a self-loathing portrait of the creative process as Bardem’s blocked artist becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to find inspiration.
It’s this theme that eventually overwhelms and derails the plot. As the focus shifts more and more towards Bardem’s creations, Lawrence’s angelic Mother gets lost in the maelstrom, losing her voice and agency until she is little more than a (at times literal) punchbag for Bardem’s creative ambitions.
There’s no denying that Mother! is a bold and unforgettable visual masterpiece, but as soon as Lawrence’s compelling presence fades into the background, the film descends into a cold, hollow mess of vivid imagery that lacks purpose or meaning. It seems that, like his onscreen counterpart, Aronofsky is guilty of letting the embers of a good idea burn out before that’ve truly caught fire.
Runtime: 121 mins (approx.)
Director/Screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer