Film Review: mother!

Darren Aronofsky’s symbolic tale of a young woman besieged by barbarous intruders in her own house is so extreme it makes his 'Black Swan' look like a Merchant Ivory film.
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Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed heroine in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! would no doubt gladly trade places with victimized new mom Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Owing a substantial debt to the 1968 Roman Polanski classic, Aronofsky’s latest takes that film’s climactic horror of a mother subjected to evil forces and multiplies it exponentially. In films like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, Aronofsky has been a filmmaker who goes so far over the top, there’s no safe landing in sight. But mother! takes that tendency to an extreme new level.

The film is intended as a parable: The buffeted young woman played by Lawrence is nothing less than the embodiment of Mother Earth herself. She’s married to a celebrated poet (played by Javier Bardem), who represents the artist who pursues inspiration no matter the cost to those closest to him.

mother! opens with a horrific image of Lawrence in flames, followed by the reconstitution of the big house, once burned to a crisp in a fire, where she and Bardem reside. The creepiness seeps in with the arrival of an unannounced visitor (Ed Harris) with a bad smoking habit and a hacking cough, with whom Bardem instantly (and weirdly) bonds. The next day brings his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, terrific), a sneering, condescending, presumptuous woman who keeps asking Lawrence inappropriate questions. Then arrive the couple’s fiercely bickering sons, at which point things get very ugly. Even though someone dies violently in the house, there’s no police investigation; instead, there’s a heavily attended wake that gets so rowdy even the Irish would be appalled.

Throughout, the vulnerable Lawrence is treated like a doormat; her reasonable objections to the madness around her are viewed as annoying buzzkill. But all is instantly forgiven when she and Bardem have sex and she wakes up the next morning with a beatific smile and the intuition that she’s pregnant.

Where this all leads will have your jaw on the floor. Hubby finally breaks his writer’s block and publishes a profound work that inspires a fanatical following, who descend upon the house by the hundreds. Before long, the place is a literal war zone; it’s like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come alive.

Credit Aronofsky with marshaling one of the ugliest and most frenetic visions of human nature at its worst; the anarchy accelerates at a breathtaking pace. But some of the details are stomach-churning, especially his blunt and graphic treatment of his leading lady. It’s also bothersome that Lawrence as mother has so little agency here; she’s a punching bag, both physically and psychologically. This dishrag isn’t the Jennifer Lawrence we’ve grown to admire: strong, shrewd, scrappy and assertive. But Bardem is perfect casting, his macho Spanish charm almost obscuring what a self-absorbed shit his character is.

Aronofsky has said that mother! is meant as a response to what we humans are doing to Mother Earth, but this flesh-and-blood dramatization of his outrage is no pleasure to watch. Still, it’s an experience—I’ll give him that.

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