(Movie review = spoilers)
Mother! Is a horror movie with a shadow agenda—which is a problem, I think. The picture’s most effective horror elements are unusually potent; they stir a sense of intimate violation that’s uncomfortable to process. And toward the end, writer-director Darren Aronofsky, redlining the WTF meter, whips up a couple of scenes that may strike some viewers as going way too far in a direction they’d rather not follow.
However, it’s hard to get too exercised about the movie’s escalating terrors, since they’re not happening to believable characters. The people we see here are participants in an allegory, bloodless puppets whose every action scores points in a larger, encompassing narrative. They have no backstories or human textures, and since their fates are shaped by Aronofsky’s laborious authorial design, it’s hard to care about them, or about the story in which they’ve been positioned. This leaves us with little more to contemplate than the movie’s thick Biblical underbrush, its familiar environmental messaging, and its escalating surges of noise and nastiness. Also the elements it has appropriated from Rosemary’s Baby, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and the well-known world of David Lynch (clanking, raspy sound design, pulsing fetal visions).
Nobody in this movie has a real-world name. Jennifer Lawrence is “Mother”; Javier Bardem is her poet husband, “Him.” They live in a big old country house built on the site of Him’s previous big old country house, which burned down, destroying all that he had except a mysterious crystal, which he now keeps on a little display stand in his home office. (I never figured out what this thing was supposed to symbolize; I was too busy trying to figure out what the orange powder was that Mother mixed into the glasses of water she kept drinking.)
Since this is a religious allegory, we are invited to wring meaning from the fact that Him’s house is situated way out in the middle of nowhere, with no neighbors or apparent means of egress. What planet does this remind you of? And while Mother treats Him with nothing but adoration, Him is coldly abrupt with her. He tells her he loves her—sure, sure—but in fact he is essentially indifferent to her and her concerns. What noted old-school deity does Him remind you of?
While Mother goes about fixing up the new house—she wants to turn it into a “paradise,” she says—Him struggles with an epic case of writer’s block. Why can’t he create anything new?
Then one night a knock at the door. It’s a man (Ed Harris) who claims to be a doctor and says he’s a big fan of Him’s poetry. Him invites this fellow in to spend the night. And when his pushy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) barges in the following day, Him invites her to stay, too. Next come this couple’s two grown sons (Cain and Abel figures played by Domhnall Gleeson and his own brother, Brian). Soon there’s shouting and fighting and a puddle of blood burning a vagina-shaped hole in the floor and flowing down into the basement—a dark and gloomy place lit only by the flare of the boiler fire. (What district of the damned does this remind you of? Also: Why do we need to be reminded of it?)
More and more of Him’s worshipful readers keep arriving, and he continues inviting them inside. (This is a guy who loves nothing more than being adored.) Soon the clamorous interlopers are making a mess of Mother’s paradise. Terrible things begin to happen, and the movie keeps piling them on. The story doesn’t evolve, it just proceeds. From a filmmaker of Aronofsky’s long-demonstrated gifts, you might expect more than this live-action sermon, as vibrantly shot and tautly edited as it is. (At least there’s no outright praying. At the screening I attended, little cards were passed out bearing something called “mother’s prayer,” the opening line of which—”our mother who art underfoot” – was most unfortunate.)
Throughout much of the movie, Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) and his longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique keep their camera locked into obsessive closeups of Lawrence’s face as she makes her way around the big house, dealing with one crisis after another. This strategy—which enables the smooth introduction of occasional shock reveals—becomes oppressive. Lawrence is an actor of superb expressive instincts, but here, playing an almost completely passive character, she’s given virtually nothing to express beyond mounting panic. (Well, at least until the end, when she’s encouraged to go nutso along with the rest of the movie.) This is a terrible waste.
Mostly, though, it’s too bad that Aronofsky felt compelled to churn out this fright-flick/message-movie mashup instead of the full-bore, skull-crushing, straight-on horror film that he could surely write and deliver. Maybe someday. This one definitely isn’t it.