Darren Aronofsky unleashes the mother of audacious art films this year, and mother! is bound to polarize the masses who give this slice of winning insanity a go.
The latest in a filmography that also includes a terrifyingly dark ballerina (Black Swan) and a downward-spiraling pro grappler (The Wrestler), mother! (*** out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) manages to be the writer/director's boldest yet: a tale of relationship turmoil and a genre-exploding showcase for its star Jennifer Lawrence. But Aronofsky isn’t subtle with the deeper meanings. Impending motherhood is seen through a horror-movie lens, there are enough religious metaphors for a particularly strange Sunday school class, and mother! thrives most as a thoughtful and angry look at modern society.
The first act, however, is sedate in comparison to the roiling madness that awaits its audience later. Lawrence plays the mother in the title, who lives for fixing up a huge estate in the sticks with her older husband (Javier Bardem), a famous poet labeled “Him” in the credits. He struggles to find inspiration for his writing, while she in many ways becomes one with the house amid their peaceful isolation.
That tranquility is torn asunder one night when a stranger (Ed Harris) knocks on their door, thinking the place is a bed and breakfast. The man strikes up a quick friendship with Him, who lets him stay for the night and also invites in the guy's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) when she shows up.
(This is probably good time a time to explain that no character in the movie has a real name, and most are lowercase: Harris and Pfeiffer — who steals every scene with icy arrogance — are credited as "man" and "woman," while supporting characters include a zealot, neophyte, penitent, healer and soldier. Only Bardem’s Him gets proper capitalization, a nod to the Christian underpinnings of the story and the celebrity poet's status within the context of the movie.)
The newcomers turn out to be houseguests from hell, and their presence creates an increased exasperation for Lawrence's character, who really just wants to be left alone with her hubby. Pfeiffer is the absolute worst, questioning the lady of the house about her underwear choices, intimacy issues and the lack of rugrats running around.
More random people inexplicably start showing up, enough to drive mother crazy as she drives them all out. A quiet moment leads to her finally getting pregnant. Yet that just ignites the flames that envelop the rest of the film, which turns into a dizzying array of sex, violence, death, destruction, sacrifice and primal instincts with Him becoming an idol for worshippers and mother fighting for her and her unborn child’s survival.
The waves of disturbing imagery and hellish bacchanalia earn mother! its exclamation point and leave the viewer drowning in symbolism. It gets under the skin and refuses to leave; Aronofsky tosses an higher-concept grenade that waits a bit to blow your mind.
Lawrence’s performance grounds the more out-there aspects of mother! The audience is with her, in sickness and in health, more so than her husband, and we feel every bit of her bloody pain and pathos.
Impressive in its ambition, mother! doesn’t quite reach the heights of Aronofsky’s Black Swan in terms of bizarre masterpieces, yet endless conversations about what the heck you just saw will surely be born and raised.