“Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up in an isolated house in the country, where she lives with “Him” (Javier Bardem) her poet husband who suffers terribly from writer’s block. When a stranger (Ed Harris) unexpectedly arrives with a not-entirely-truthful story, closely followed by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer) it propels mother onto an increasingly threatening emotional journey.
A suitable synopsis of writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is difficult to give, since it is a deliberately oblique and allegorical film, and because its vague nature is essentially the core of the entire exercise. The film sees Aronofsky move through and then beyond the Polanski-inspired paranoia of his 2010 hit Black Swan and into a full-blown dream-like state where causality begins to blur and a straightforward narrative collapses into a panic-stricken stream of consciousness. On a moment-to-moment basis it is enormously effective; the only film I can think of that replicates the sensation of a bad dream so well is Sion Sono’s 2015 film Tag (aka Riaru Onigokko).
It is worth noting that some of the imagery gets actively challenging, in a manner familiar to viewers of ‘extreme cinema’ like Irreversible and A Serbian Film. It is likely the most mainstream iteration of this kind of confrontational horror released in cinemas; Aaronofsky’s boldness in this regard is commendable.
Underlying the nightmarish visuals is an unfortunately weak allegory that actual damages the power of the film. When it is confusing and unknowable it is deeply frightening. As soon as the viewer picks up on the parallels in character and action it becomes a moderately tedious affair. It is glaringly obvious quite early into the film that Aaronofsky is presenting an allegorical account of Christianity, beginning with the creation of the world and carrying it through to the sacrifice of Jesus within the New Testament. As a symbolic retelling it as blunt and crude as smashing the audience with a large rock: there is no sudden revelation or shock development. This is far from Aaronofsky’s first exploration of religious material in his films, but to my mind it is his least successful take to date.
Performances are strong, thanks largely to such famously talented actors assuming the roles. The casting of Javier Bardem as mother’s pre-occupied husband Him brings with it an age gap of 22 years, but for once such an egregious gap feels as if it part of the point. It adds further fragility to Jennifer Lawrence’s well-played and brittle performance. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer are both excellent as Man and Woman – unwanted visitors to the house who refuse to leave. Pfieffer’s sensual and rather cruel characterisation is possibly the strongest of the entire film; she remains one of Hollywood’s most taken-for-granted performers.
mother! has a tremendous energy and power to it, and it represents a particularly bold work of cinema – I honestly do not think it is out of place to even call it brave. The allegory at its core remains its weakest element, and while it does dent the movie rather badly it does not entirely defeat it. Aaronofsky is one of America’s most interesting filmmakers, and mother! remains a hallucinatory trip well worth taking.