Claustrophobia has rarely been depicted with the precision that Darren Aronofsky demonstrates in mother!. This horror comedy about the depredations to which an unnamed young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is subjected by her poet husband (Javier Bardem) is terrible and boring in its first hour, after which it turns terrible but interesting. The violence — psychological and physical — doesn’t waver. But some audiences appreciate a filmmaker who pummels them out of the theater.
Allusive but with a touch as light as a concrete glove, mother! wastes no time bringing knots to stomachs. At the center of mother! is a mysterious crystal, perhaps the source of Him (Bardem)’s creativity. In the first scene the ruins of a once proud mansion are reconstituted into a version of its former self. Lolling in bed, Mother (Lawrence) looks over her shoulder and says, “Babe?” This kicks off a series of moments, indebted to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, in which Mother imagines unseen forces behind walls and in the basement. Then a Man (Ed Harris) knocks on the door. Convulsed by emphysema, he acts as if he knows Him; at any rate Him, stricken with writer’s block, says he needs Man for the stories he tells (we hear none of them). Him uses the writer’s block to keep Mother at bay; as usual with these kinds of films she wants to get pregnant, he doesn’t.
mother!‘s essential plot device is to treat the house as a clown car, piling uninvited guests while Mother directs her growing outrage to her husband, who reveals himself as a man of staggering narcissism. The most memorable is Man’s wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer with vinegary menace (my relief was a reminder of how much pleasure she used to give me twenty-five (!) years ago). When Pfeiffer is on screen, Aronofsky’s dream-illogic snaps into place; she acts as if it’s her house and Mother is in the intruder, forcing the audience to question what we’ve seen so far.
But the blood letting doesn’t begin until the couple’s sons (Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson) appear unannounced too and fighting over the will. From this point forward mother! climaxes with a pair of tableaux that riff superficially on The Exterminating Angel: a wake and an assembly of Him’s fans celebrating the publication of the collection of poems inspired by Mother’s sudden pregnancy. How the poems and pregnancy happen I won’t share. Aronofsky is at his best in these passages, which are edited with an eye for rapid movement, especially when capturing people and bits of action at the camera’s periphery. His other strategy is to fill every inch of the screen with reaction shots of Lawrence staring straight into the camera, making the audience complicit in the bludgeoning.
“Jesus Christ. At least we had two hours of air conditioning,” I overheard an Irma-weary man tell his wife exiting a screening of mother!. With art I’m no democrat — several people fled the terrific Marjorie Prime before the end credits had rolled. Darren Aronofsky may have intended an experience this alienating. A sadist dressed up as a fabulist, Aronofsky specializes in movies in which he expects audiences to get their jollies from watching pretty stars get theirs onscreen, from Jennifer Connolly and Jared Leto’s heroin addicts in Requiem for a Dream and Natalie Portman’s ballerina in Black Swan to Russell Crowe’s titular hero in Noah, his least repulsive film. The violence in mother! is staggering: shards of glass as weapons; a mob stomps on Jennifer Lawrence; a baby’s life is threatened. The picture offended me insofar as it was at the service of banal points about a poet’s self-absorption. Conveying dread isn’t a skill if what the audience dreads is stupid. Lawrence doesn’t give a performance; it’s an endurance test. mother! deserves feminist scrutiny: while it does show Him as a smooth-talking monster, the film does so at the expense of Mother, who’s abased in a manner that suggests the writer-director is having a grand old time (a glance de Sade’s Justine may be illustrative). Horror flicks have used the woman-in-distress trope for a century; with Mother! it might be time to put it on ice. Aronofsky can put the magic crystal where his brain ought to be.