“I am I,” Javier Bardem’s character (credited only as ‘Him’) whispers prophetically down to Jennifer Lawrence (credited only as ‘Mother’) in the epic climax of Darren Aronofsky’s new film. Yes, says the audience, but is that really all?
Mother! tries to be many things—psychological thriller, haunted-house horror, marital farce—but ultimately smothers itself in a blanket of religious allegory too simple for all of the film’s moving parts.
We begin in a Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere, rebuilt by our unnamed couple, Bardem and Lawrence, after a fire destroyed the home years ago. The couple live in comfortable isolation: Bardem a successful poet suffering from extreme writer’s block and Lawrence his failing muse who spends her days mulling over paint colors for the house’s newly plastered walls. Their proclaimed paradise is broken when two mysterious houseguests (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive and make themselves at home.
The film’s tension builds out of the masterful (albeit at times nauseating) cinematography of long-time Aronofsky partner Matthew Libatique, whose widescreen lens pushes up behind Lawrence’s shoulders and follows her from room to room and floor to floor as she paces and tracks sounds and movements throughout the house.
This is first-person narrative filmmaking, make no mistake. Aronofsky wants us in our protagonist’s head as we share in her anxiety and potential delirium—multiple times she drinks down a mysterious yellow powder in an effort to curb her rising hysteria. Later, Lawrence mixes a remarkably similar yellow powder into paint she applies to her living room wall before holding her hands up to feel the house’s heart beat through the plaster. For a moment we are reminded of Charlotte Perkin’s classic feminist horror story “The Yellow Wallpaper” where the female narrator is driven insane by being wrongfully detained in a house by her patriarchal husband. When Lawrence’s character begins to see blood stains dripping down walls and vaginally blossoming up out of the cracks between floorboards we think we know what type of world we are in.
But then Aronofsky rips the rug out from under us, as he’ll do again and again, as wave after wave of new visitors arrive. The visceral sensory experience of being so mentally close to our protagonist allows the film to prioritize imagery and symbols over plot and dialogue. But the further we get into the film, the more it seems we are being pushed from moment to moment for some symbolic significance we haven’t figured out yet, rather than being propelled by the plot or characters in any natural way.
The last thirty or so minutes escalates into a crescendo of surrealist mania, filled with nightmarish violence that leaves the audience stunned and horrified. Yet, unlike this year’s Detroit or Get Out—movies with similar audience reactions—Mother! is not a call to action, it does not disgust for some obvious purpose. And although you may spend the next few days trying to piece together all of its parts, what ultimately emerges might not be worth the time.