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‘mother!’ Review: A Crunchy Forbidden Fruit of a Film

A saintly Jennifer Lawrence fights off annoying and unwelcome houseguests in Darren Aronofsky’s latest hallucinatory thriller.
By  · Published on September 14th, 2017

A mind-bending psychological-thriller-cum-home-invasion-horror (OK, it’s actually quite unclassifiable), Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is noticeably, almost defiantly scoreless. Its snowballing dreads unfolding inside a seemingly idyllic, oddly circular country home aren’t accompanied by an original musical motif that signposts screams and jump scares. But you can still take notice of the musicality of its hair-raising echoes, uncannily detonating through creaking floorboards, shattering household items, eerie screeches and escalating cries and whispers overheard from opposite sides of walls. This list only scratches the surface in attempting to describe the galvanizing experience of not only seeing, but hearing the strange terrors of mother!: a feat of sound design that alarms, frightens and fittingly frustrates the viewer at every turn. Consider yourself warned about this deafening, crunchy forbidden fruit of a film. There is no turning back once you take a bite of it and spiral down its rabbit hole and sewer pipes, grotesquely clogged with blood and guts.

And I sincerely hope you do take that bite (at your own risk.) Aronofsky’s stunning chamber piece—an allegory of marriage and societal gender norms in its most basic reading among a possible pool of metaphors (sometimes, a touch over-pronounced and self-serious)—is as wild and insolently over-the-top as the most vivid of nightmares. Stuck deep in one is a young, unnamed woman (referred to as Mother), played by Jennifer Lawrence with utmost fragility and vulnerability. Married to a famous poet much older than herself (Javier Bardem, referred to as Him), Mother angelically floats around the house in her luxe loungewear and appealingly sculpted waves (her shining purity is exquisitely captured, almost stalked, on 16mm by DP Matthew Libatique), and tends to the never-ending needs of her castle she single-handedly renovates inch by inch.

But her routine gets interrupted one day by uninvited, unwanted strangers (played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) who, as houseguests, soil her precious home with no remorse or trace of apology. Mother’s instinctive reactions to the mounting disrespect and hostility around her range from gentle objection to mild protest as she goes deeper in her nightmare: no one seems to hear her when her half-hearted screams get caught in her throat. Not even her husband, who has been experiencing a severely long stretch of writer’s block. Instead of siding with her, he prioritizes his pathetic artistic needs and despite Mother’s vocal hesitations, continues to open the door to even more people who dote on him and stroke his ego. Don’t be shy to think of Rosemary’s Baby plenty here: Mother’s egotistical husband and the male Woodhouse who sells his soul to the Devil in Roman Polanski’s horror classic surely share a DNA that makes them spiritually betray their spouses.

But the couple in mother! somehow does manage to get rid of the nuisances and temporarily leave their tension-filled days behind after an eventful family drama, the details of which you’re better off discovering on your own. With his writer’s block behind him and now a baby on the way, Mother’s husband enters a fruitful, productive stage and publishes a new book, the fame of which reaches far beyond the confines of their peaceful oasis. Old habits prove to die hard, however. Soon enough, their house finds itself under a new, even worse invasion. Like hungry, bloodthirsty zombies that crawl out of a grave in need of human flesh, hordes of people force themselves upon the doors and windows of Mother’s home, only to be welcomed (yet again) by her husband who continues to insecurely crave appreciation and validation like air and water. (INTERPRETIVE SPOILERS AHEAD AFTER THIS POINT.)

To put mildly, Darren Aronofsky is not a filmmaker known for his subtlety: perhaps with the exception of The Wrestler, over-stimulating his audiences’ senses and provoking them with unimaginable images are among his filmmaking staples. From the body horrors of Black Swan to the hallucinatory extremism of Requiem for a Dream (one torturous sequence with Jennifer Connelly is still the most out there thing the filmmaker has ever done), there are familiar hints of his obsessions and sensibilities everywhere in mother! generously peppered with heavy doses of religious symbols. Have no worries if you (like me) are foreign to the nitty-gritty avenues of faith: you will find Aronofsky goes out of his way to drop frequent clues, so even non-religious audiences can comprehend the basics. In one on-the-nose scene, for instance, Lawrence says she wants to turn her home into a “paradise for Him” to a closely probing Michelle Pfeiffer who contemptibly surveys her. In another, she talks of preparing for the apocalypse. You get the idea.

But there is also another undeniable, contemporary allegory not-so-hidden in Aronofsky’s mother!, which treats Mother’s once impeccable home as Planet Earth and the vicious looters who damage and demolish it with scratches, dents, and bloodstains as humankind. A welcome twist to the beloved home invasion formula, this political and environmental tier of mother! smartly makes the viewer feel like a shameful invader (as opposed to the victim) who contributes to the deterioration of the world through entitlement and mass consumption. Despite all of Aronofsky’s layered ambitions, however, mother! is at its most exciting and sophisticated when read closer to its face value. Call it a cautionary tale on patriarchal privilege or on hazards of marrying a selfish alpha male. It is on that plateau where Aronofsky’s scathing observations on loudly empty men and often silenced women land with a bang. In a marriage, the apocalypse is what comes after the soreness and embarrassment of rediscovering your spouse through the hell of other people. And in mother! that hell is prepared to devour all that dares to get in its way.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.