Darren Aronofsky’s new film Mother! (emphasis inexplicably added) is a Grand Guignol of over-the-top moviemaking that suggests an apocalyptic mash up of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ariel Dorfman and Roman Polanski. A star-powered experimental allegory somehow bankrolled in the age of superhero reboots and bromances, Mother! keeps you perpetually discombobulated with its shape-shifting storyline, weaving from melodrama to thriller to gothic to horror to Bergmanesque marital chamber piece to dystopian drama. A strangely theatrical set piece from a director (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) who has previously explored solitary characters grappling with a hostile reality, Mother! expands the director’s usual themes to explore relationships, creativity and gender.
Holed up in a massive Badlands Victorian in the middle of a vast Andrew Wyeth cornfield, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) are new homeowners restoring their gothic mansion in tasteful shades of greige and just-so yuppie detail. Being allegories for the human condition, they have avoided the dull routines of 21st-century life like grocery shopping, friends and neighbors, cell phones, television, car ownership or leaving the house, the better to stoke Aronofsky’s hothouse atmosphere. A successful poet who has managed to fund his wife’s Restoration Hardware mansion-reboot, Him frets and pouts over a sustained bout of writer’s block, torturing his young wife with his festering angst while she worriedly looks on.
Mother! is first and foremost deeply indebted to Polanski’s 1968 demon-thriller to end all demon thrillers Rosemary’s Baby, about an ambitious actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) who sells a timeshare in his wife Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) womb to Satan in exchange for a boost to his acting career. A brilliant psychological thriller about, among other things, the loss of self in pregnancy, Polanski’s thriller is all about Rosemary and her sense of dwindling control. Hitching Polanski’s estrogen thriller to a haunted house premise, Aronofsky similarly places his audience in Mother’s hands as she winds through the circuitous rooms of her home, bedeviled by her husband’s increasingly questionable behavior. Polanski’s psychological horror works on multiple levels, as a parable of pregnancy, an expression of his themes of post-Holocaust hell-is-other-people and as the ultimate New Yorker scare-film of pushy, annoying neighbors (who also happen to be Satanists), but functions first and foremost as a masterful slowly building pressure cooker of suspense. Aronofsky replaces Polanski’s finely calibrated austerity and intricate subtext with a crazed gumbo of style and ideas.
A plot-altering complication enters stage right in the form of a leathery orthopedic surgeon Man (Ed Harris) who shows up on their doorstep one evening and manages to wrangle a bed for the night. He’s a fan of Him’s writing and Him is nothing if not susceptible to flattery. Unlike the initially charming, charismatic Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, we know from the beginning that the man simply known as Him is a humorless, joy-sucking chest wound of a partner. Boundaries are not this guy’s forte and when Harris shares his flask and complements his writing, Him’s a goner. The plain truth is, he can’t get enough adoration, and a dreamboat wife half his age cooking and cleaning and single-handedly restoring their house just isn’t enough.
Soon the Man’s wife Woman (a brittle, spooky Michelle Pfeiffer playing a Nordstrom sales clerk’s worst nightmare) arrives and begins grilling Lawrence about her lack of a child, unsatisfying sex life and, in a creepy basement laundry scene also indebted to Rosemary’s Baby, mocks her frumpy taste in lingerie.
Coincidentally, their house may also be haunted, though that may be beside the point when the man of the house is such an irredeemable goblin. Every so often Mother puts her hand or head on a wall and a beating heart pulsates from somewhere deep inside the house. Stacking metaphor upon metaphor, the house with its vaginal gashes, yearning heart and unappreciated shelter, becomes an echo of Mother’s own status, overlooked, and then ravaged. When the stress becomes too much, Mother convulses and can only be restored by drinking a bright yellow liquid, one of many spooky, atmosphere-goosing plot points—like some gore that turns up in one of her toilets—that never quite gels.
A strange, disjointed, increasing apocalyptic storyline that might fly with the careful ministrations of a skilled storyteller and allegorist like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy, Mother! becomes brittle and strange in Aronofsky’s hands. The film can at times feel like a short story Botoxed into existence with an infusion of Hollywood money and special effects. Aronofsky’s atmosphere comes across as too designed, too contrived and his heroine too cipherlike — stalking like a Helmut Lang mode, barefoot, moody and swathed in revealing linen sportswear — through her exquisite, minimalist home, to ever fully engage our sympathy. For all his faults as a human being, Polanski, the director, built deeply sympathetic heroines who carried us along in their parries with a hostile, generally male, world. But Aronofsky’s plotline and characters feel less flesh and blood and more like something cooked up in a screenwriter’s lab.
In the film’s production notes, Aronofsky admits that rather than emerging from years of writing, polishing and development, Mother! was a premature baby. “I woke up one morning and this movie poured out of me.” Indeed, Mother! has the feeling of a dashed-off allegory about the destructive power of male ego facing off against the nurturing, self-sacrificing feminine. While thankless Mother carefully restores the house, cooks elaborate meals and selflessly heralds her husband’s genius, Him offers no protection or encouragement in return. At its most complex, the film is also a powerful statement about the narcissistic excesses of the artist’s will. Either oblivious to his own self-damning portrait of artistic vanity, or just brilliantly in touch with his own flaws, Aronofsky’s leitmotif is the destructive potential of creation and the bottomless selfishness, destructiveness and cant of the male ego when chained to the artist’s mission. As Mother’s agony and the invasion of their home escalates, Him feeds greedily on his guests’ ego-stroking.
To its credit, Mother! is a shockingly strange work that, like so many Aronofsky films, demonstrates a talent for deeply unsettling imagery and an ability to reveal base human behavior rooted in real-world malfeasance (hero worship, misogyny and greed among them). The film boasts a decidedly creepy undertow, a sense of the devouring, maddening surreality of human ickiness seen in other films like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs where some outside menace invades a couple’s home and refuses to leave before wreaking violent havoc. As more and more uninvited guests arrive—beginning with Man and Woman’s extended family—stalking into Mother’s kitchen, then her bedroom, then her bathroom, a feeling of suffocation increases. When Him overcomes his writer’s block and is finally inspired to pen his literary magnum opus, their home is invaded further, turned into a cult-lit enclave where his fiction’s fans come to pay homage. Stoked by Him’s vanity, his fans transform hero worship into complete dystopian chaos, destroying the house (and, in turn, its caretaker, Mother) like religious devotees stealing relics. Creativity, or perhaps, masculine ego in Mother! is a destructive rather than a positive force, unleashing humankind’s hidden demons. Aronofsky’s ambition is remarkable even while the act of watching his film begins to put us in the position of his Mother, chained to a storyline sliding wildly off the rails.