Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jannifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (lower case ‘m’ – not a typo) opens with all the signs of a standard psychological horror; the unnamed ‘Mother’ (Jennifer Lawrence) and her poet husband, titled ‘Him’ (Javier Bardem) seem relatively at peace together in his home, a grand and isolated country house typical of the genre. Whilst the poet struggles with writer’s block (the source of a slight tension early on), she is devoted to the renovation of the house, mixing paints and arranging furniture with an unusual sense of care derived from a supernatural connection emanating from the walls. Then the doorbell rings.
The unexpected intrusion of the character, ‘Man’ (Ed Harris) and the subsequent arrival of his wife, appropriately titled ‘Woman’ (Michelle Pfeiffer), marks the introduction of an ever-growing cast and the disintegration of Mother’s control over her home, which serves as one of many focal points for the twisted and twisting narrative. From here on out, the film becomes increasingly difficult to categorise, weaving elements of drama, gore, and (extremely) black comedy through its controversial and often nightmarish narrative. Perhaps it is this subversion of what is deemed morally and technically acceptable that has drawn such a polarised response to the film, which was met with both a chorus of boos and a standing ovation during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
You give, and you give, and you give. It’s just never enough.
What is clear is the film’s ability to provoke fear and distress in its audience. The film is intentionally subjective; its production – most notably the cinematography of Matthew Libatique – places the viewer in a position of vulnerability alongside the helpless ‘Mother’, whose distress is made palpable by Jennifer Lawrence in a performance far surpassing that of her previous role in Passengers. Bardem, too, carries the film’s tension and terror well as his egomaniacal tendencies are revealed and cracks begin to emerge in the couple’s relationship.
The only time that mother! does lose some of its dramatic impact is in the more action-oriented scenes, which occasionally veer away from the overarching tone of the film, momentarily dispelling the atmosphere that is otherwise so immersive throughout. During these scenes, however, Lawrence’s harrowing performance commands enough attention to avoid dwelling on faults for too long, and the sequence’s gruesome conclusion (not for the faint-hearted, and branded by some as unnecessary and ‘over-the-top’) is truly emotionally devastating.
Most importantly – and like any great art – mother! is not chained to any singular meaning. Strewn with iconography and myth, Aronofsky’s script provides just enough clues to create intrigue and a sense of the sublime – as ever, just out of reach – whilst maintaining an ambiguity that allows for individual interpretation. Is it a creation myth, an ecological lament, an act of authorial self-criticism, or something else entirely? Perhaps it is all of these things – you’ll just have to watch it and decide for yourself.