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There’s a good chance that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was greenlit by mistake. It boggles the mind that a major studio would sign off on a film this audacious, cynical, and pitiless. Aronofsky is hardly a timid director; his style often reflects the frayed trauma of his characters. His latest takes that trademark and follows it until he literally critiques the foundations of Western Civilization. The audience for such a film is small, since large swaths of the people who see it will be confused or angry—or both. Its final stretch elevates metaphor and subtext so they become literal; this is a hammy technique, with all the subtlety of a megaton warhead. Still, there is a fearless quality to mother! that pushes it beyond mere provocation—Aronofsky challenges us, going so far as to abandon the foundations of allegory and basic storytelling along the way.
Before there is any dialogue, Aronofsky hints that supernatural elements govern what happens. It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark, except in reverse: a man (Javier Bardem)—who we soon learn is a renowned poet—places a valuable jewel into its display case, which then causes his idyllic countryside mansion to transform from disrepair to renovated bliss. The man’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is eager to finish the repairs, while he works on an unnamed writing project. Ed Harris turns up as an unannounced guest, one who is unknown to the couple: Using a thin pretense, the poet welcomes him, anyway. This section of mother! is an awkward social comedy: The wife tries to be accommodating, ignoring her instinct that her husband is too tolerant and gregarious. Shortly after the guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) also arrives, the tension between Lawrence and everyone else, including her husband, is practically hostile.
Aronofsky leaves plenty of room for us to pore over his film’s meaning. The opening scenes in particular have a repetitive, claustrophobic quality to them: Nearly every shot is from Lawrence’s point of view, with the camera whipping around her shoulders or peering around the next corner. This is a technique usually found in horror—the rickety old house is a familiar setting in the genre—and yet Aronofsky mostly avoids the jump scare. Instead, the camera’s subjectivity puts us into the wife’s mental space: we have as much information as she does, and so we share her bewilderment.
Parts of mother! are maddening, even obtuse, and yet Aronofsky plays it fair. He is withholding details from his hero and his audience in equal measure, but then a funny thing starts to happen: characters start slipping in superfluous details. Some of them are distractions, and others are clues. As mother! continues, adding more characters beyond the initial two guests, Aronofsky’s taut screenplay stacks the information in the audience’s favor. It helps that no characters in the film have names; at first, it is strange how the poet will not offer his name to the guests, and yet the pronouns tilt the dialogue toward broader resonance. Aronofsky draws from foundational texts, and so every chaotic plot twist follows familiar paths of myth and history.
Depending on your sensibilities, the final sections of mother! are even funnier than the tension of unwelcome, needling houseguests. The hints are oblique for a while, and then the script abandons subtlety entirely. Aronofsky wants to be absolutely clear that these characters, in this situation, are metaphors for something else. The sooner you start thinking about the script on its terms, the funnier mother! may become.
To be clear, “black” is not adequate word to describe this strain of comedy. It’s more like staring into a black hole, or a gaping maw. The final half hour is frenzied, leading to a jam-packed orgy of chaotic bloodshed, and yet Aronofsky avoids the queasy, exaggerated realism of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream. Like Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, another film set entirely within a large household, Aronofsky prefers to follow through on his surrealist premise.
If Lawrence’s character starts as an audience surrogate, then the others in mother! abandon communicating with her altogether. Supporting characters seem to address the audience directly, with a needling sense of urgency. This might have been a better film if Aronofsky trusted us more, and yet this direct engagement creates an opportunity to consider what each character—indeed, most objects—represent. Lawrence convincingly goes through a ringer, suggesting she is the victim of pervasive patriarchy, and Bardem’s effortless narcissism only exacerbates it (the age difference between them is a significant plot point).
But these actors portray something bigger than characters. What they ultimately signify takes a willingness to offend, or genuine reserves of courage. mother! is too alienating to be controversial, and could be celebrated on those terms alone.
mother! opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market, Regal Gallery Place, and AMC Loews Georgetown.