Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is his Mona Lisa. Maybe a masterpiece, but most definitely crafted to capture the public with its mystery. Following its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, the art-horror offering has ignited furious debate over its meaning, and even basic plot points. Sure, the trailer suggests this is a creepy cult thriller about a married couple whose happy home is unsettled by some unexpected–and sexy–guests. But the truth is something more complicated and far trickier to define.
Benign and beguiling, Jennifer Lawrence stars as an unnamed housewife who devotes herself completely to remodeling the home of her poet husband (a volcanic Javier Bardem). Though the house was once ravaged by fire, she’s single-handedly repaneled, re-plastered, and repainted, constructing a home so unique and inviting that a smiling stranger (Ed Harris, sparky yet sinister) claims he thought it was a bed and breakfast. Easily flattered, her husband welcomes him in, and also invites the stranger’s wife (a smoldering and threatening Michelle Pfeiffer), declaring both can stay indefinitely. Lawrence’s character is baffled by her husband’s abrupt hospitality, and understandably upset that she wasn’t included in the decision. But there’s hardly any time to complain before more and more and more people pour into their lives and into their home, at a rate both disorienting and dismaying. Her loving care for her home and careful attention to its details are lost on these intruders, who disrespect house rules by smoking indoors, wandering into private rooms, and breaking things, even the literal kitchen sink.
Drawn by their love of the poet’s work, these hordes of strangers flock to him, and so he becomes more and more neglectful of his doting wife. In this regard, it’s easy to read Mother! as a critique of the dangers of fame and demands of a creative vocation, or perhaps a confession of Aronofsky’s divorce from his wife of ten years, actress Rachel Weisz. But heavy Christian overtones invoking tales of Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary and more, suggest there’s an even deeper allegory at play. However, blood-seeping flood boards and visions of a rejuvenated forest fold in themes of environmentalism. Much like the Bible from which Aronofsky plucks some of the story’s most ghoulish elements, Mother! is stuffed not only with striking imagery but also ambiguous messages that crack it wide open to interpretation. Disciples of the filmmaker will surely preach about and argue over the film’s message for years to come. But one thing is certain: Mother! is a nightmare.
Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Lawrence
Rich with sickening swells of emotion and a sound design built on breaking glass, metallic scratches, and electric splinters, it toys with your senses. Mother! unspools with a slippery sense of time and anxiety-inducing dream logic that throw viewers into the sensation of a bad dream, helpless to escape. Our heroine weaves from one room to the next, and events that should take minutes, hours, or days to occur slip by in mere moments. She’s endlessly bewildered as the world–once so familiar–races past her and out of her control. Conversations spin in unfinished ribbons that keep her confused of their context. The camera intensely clings to her, choking her close-up off above her eyebrows and just below her chin. She is tracked and targeted like a thing hunted. And all the while everyone around her exudes an unnerving confidence in their place, in their intrusion. All she can do is futilely call out “hey!” as they trample her home, her marriage, and all she treasures.
Have you ever tried to call out in a dream, but your scream is silent, your pain ignored? Aronofsky takes that very common nightmare terror, and knowingly, torturously teases it out over two hours. The tension begins as a knot in your chest, right at your breastbone. It billows, blooming into your lungs, choking your breath, then rises higher, constricting your throat, pulling your hands to your mouth. You may scream as his vision of human-made hell spills forth into a chaotic and challenging third act. But it won’t matter. Screaming won’t help you. Screaming is no escape from Mother!
Wrapping up with a heart-wrenching climax, Mother! leaves its audience rattled, dazed, and fearful of strangers. (We do not recommend seeing it and then immediately stumbling out into Times Square.) While some horror movies aim to spook you with jump scares, invincible killers, or child-eating clowns, Aronofsky’s latest is a symphony of anxiety, tension and terror that seeks into your skin, winds into you very blood and infects your mind. You will know the fear of a walking nightmare with no escape. You will carry this home. It will sit across from you as you eat your meals, linger behind you as you brush your teeth, and spoon you as you fall asleep. Then, it will sink into your slumber. And into your bad dreams, Mother! will unveil its sequel whether you like it or not.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com