Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” is an intensely claustrophobic, psychological thriller reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s feverish apartment horror flicks “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Repulsion,” as well as Arronofsky’s own uncomfortable, mind-bending thrillers like “Pi,” and “Black Swan.” The movie left me shook and incredibly anxious. In fact it took me two or three hours to calm down after my preview screening. Now, as I sit down to write this review I find myself getting anxious all over again.
The film revolves around a married couple known only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem). Mother and Him live in a large, old house seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. The cell service is weak (they use an old landline) and there appears to be no driveway or nearby roads. They’re surrounded by shrubbery and forest. Him is a poet who struggles to write during the day while Mother goes to work painting the interior walls and restoring the rest of the house. They live a calm and stable existence.
However, all of that is thrown out wack one morning when two uninvited guests show up looking for a place to stay--first a nosey but well meaning “Man” (Ed Harris) followed by his equally nosey wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). From there, things only get weirder… which is an understatement.
“Mother!” occupies a raw, sinister dream space wherein real mixes with surreal and the mundane blends with the absurd. There’s no coherent sense of time or place. All of the action is contained to Mother and Him’s house like a chamber drama but we’re not given any information about where they live. The structure seems to exist in its own dimension. The film plays out like a two-hour long nightmare that you never wake from. And it’s damn stressful.
The picture is a relationship nightmare, wherein we witness the gradual unraveling of our central married couple. Mother and Him are at odds with each other throughout. This isn’t to say they spend the whole movie arguing but rather, there’s a noticeably bizarre lapse in communication between them. Him is deeply self-absorbed and patronizing towards Mother, doing things without first asking her (like allow the Man and his wife to stay). Time after time, Him fails to consider her needs or here her view on a subject. Sometimes he flat out ignores her while she continues to support him. Occasionally Mother tries to confront Him and put her foot down but often times she just can’t get through to him, like he’s off in another dimension, even as the situation around them becomes more peculiar and chaotic.
Along with this marital discord is an intense violation of personal privacy. I’m not talking about the traditional horror movie kind that involves a maniac attempting to break into someone’s house but the immense unease and discomfort of dealing with annoying, unwanted guests-- taken to a surreal, comedic-horror dimension. Imagine if you were at your home, going about your daily business and then two nosey strangers came knocking on your door expecting a place to stay. Making matters worse, they wander around your home, touching your personal belongings, going into your bedroom. Making matters even worse, they pry into your personal life and judge you. All the while, you just wanted to be left alone and didn’t want any of this to happen. But you can’t stop it. That’s essentially the scenario Mother finds herself in throughout “Mother!” (along with having to deal with her terrible husband). It’s undoubtedly nutty but effective. Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and nightmarish absurdity with each passing minute.
Mother spends much of the movie acting bewildered and powerless and Arronofksy firmly plants us in her shoes. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique captures the drama primarily in smothering close ups and dizzying hand held tracking shots. His camera stays with her at all times, usually behind her back and a few inches away from her neck. “Mother!” is an intimate, tragic portrait of an unappreciated woman stuck in a bad marriage who gives and gives but gets nothing in return. The audience is trapped inside her personal nightmare wherein her deep seeded anxieties are on violent display.
In nightmares, you often feel helpless. You want to run away from the monster but you just can’t. You want these awful uninvited guests to leave your house but you just can’t make them and they bring more people and cause damage. You want to confront your spouse and tell them to listen to you but you can’t. In “Mother!” the feeling of helplessness, experienced by Mother and the audience, is almost suffocating. Arronofsky crafts a visceral, deeply disturbing nightmare experience.
At about the halfway point, “Mother!” takes an even wilder turn. While the marital discord and invasion of personal space narrative strands persist, the film becomes increasingly unhinged and angry, even apocalyptic. It crosses into metaphysical and biblical territory, becoming more symbolic and dreamlike, and just flat out crazy. Like really really crazy. The last thirty minutes or so are panic attack inducing. Frankly, this back half is hit and miss. Things can be a little too hysterical and uneven. Aronofsky’s ambitions get the better of him and the picture gets to be too big and all over the place.
Never the less, “Mother!” got to me. I really had no expectations going in, aside from excitement due to the fact that it was directed by Aronofsky. And the marketing has done a great job in preserving the many twists and enigmas hiding within the film while at the same time not trying to sell a movie that isn’t there. “Mother!” will probably turn a lot of people off but I was moved and I haven’t been able to shake it from my mind.