TLM Rating: 4/4
After a series of seemingly nonsensical images, “mother!” drops us into an empty cavity of a house, nonetheless inhabited by a married couple—though they behave more like married individuals. Of the two, the focus is on Jennifer Lawrence’s character (none of the characters are given names). As she wakes up, she finds her husband, played by Javier Bardem, not in bed, but busying himself with a number of obscure tasks. This will be a running theme.
Lawrence seems to exist on the fringes of her own life. Her husband hardly notices her; even when he has something to say and makes eye contact, he seems to be looking through her. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when Lawrence finds that her husband has invited a complete stranger into their home without her consent. Whatever facade of normalcy the film has put on up to this point ends here. Henceforth, “mother!” is a roller coaster ride through the intensifying nightmare of a disturbed mind. And a fun one, at that.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. During the film’s humble beginnings, a unique tone is established.
As Lawrence searches for her ever-elusive husband and performs menial chores, there is rarely a cut from one room to another. Instead, we follow her as she navigates the creaky maze of her home. This immediately disorients the audience into a feeling of unease, as if we’re a child lost in the supermarket. What’s more, there is an overemphasis on the monotonous sounds of everyday life: the hollow thump of bare feet in motion, the clanking of dishes and, in Lawrence’s case, the reluctant whine of an aged house whenever it is called to action. Opening a door quietly is impossible. Without giving anything away, this mix of confusion and heightened awareness evolves throughout, until it reaches its absolute extreme.
A brooding tone fills the air. That’s nice, but what is this movie about?
At first, it seems to be what I call a hospitality horror film, not unlike this year’s “Get Out“—a film that amplifies the subtle horrors of social mores.
As strangers fill Lawrence’s home and take an increasing amount of liberties, she begins to feel like the stranger. There really are few things worse than an unwanted guest, the film had me thinking. But then “mother!” becomes something else entirely. As for what, that’s anybody’s guess. Is it a brutal condemnation of celebrity culture, from its slow beginnings of gentle admiration to the selling of one’s own child to a magazine for all to worship? Is Lawrence a renewable resource of some kind? A muse for her poet husband to drain dry and replace? Randy Newman’s “God’s Song” might have some answers. Okay, I’ve said too much, but the fact that I still care enough to wonder be indicative of the movie’s spell.
As much credit as writer/director, Darren Aronofsky, deserves for creating something brash and original, all that brashness and originality falls directly onto the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence. She spends the majority of the movie reacting to various levels of insanity, but such a thing is easier said than done, especially when the insanity ranges from burning breakfast to all-out war. She is, in many ways, the audience’s POV—the car on the roller coaster. Bardem, with his stone face and booming voice, is perfectly cast as her patriarchal husband. If there seems to be a lack of chemistry between the two, it’s because there is; the characters need each other, but they’re hopelessly disconnected.
With a film this unapproachable, there will surely be those who make accusations of pretension.
As I see it, there are two requirements for something to be considered pretentious. First, it must be dull. Second, it must lack any kind of tangible meaning and rely entirely on audience projection. “mother!” is anything but dull, and certainly coherent enough to be able to grasp an idea and follow it to a logical conclusion.
Even last week’s R-rated horror film, “It,” is designed for mass-appeal. Yes, the movie is about a child-eating clown, but it comes at the audience with a smile and a wink, inviting them in for a good time. “mother!” does no such thing. It will no doubt offend some and bewilder others. But for everyone else, myself included, it’s an unforgettable, finely-tuned thrill ride that will leave you as inquisitive as you are nauseous, and ready to get back in line.