Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer
It’s best to go into mother! knowing nothing about it, though if someone spoils it for you you might not believe them. (I’ll do my best not to spoil any major plot points from here on out, but you might want to stop until after you see the movie). Darren Aronofsky’s psychodrama plums the self-lacerating depths of being married to a hopeless narcissist, a popular one at that. His portrait of marriage is ruthlessly calculated, pinpointing the tremors in a woman’s face with every small betrayal by her husband. A series of disruptions to their everyday lives begins as a nervous twitch before careening over the edge of sanity into an abyss of blood and fire.
The couple at the center of the movie (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem), live in an isolated mansion, one too far removed from society for cell phone service but not for a landline. The woman (none of the characters are named) spends the days remodeling the house after it was nearly destroyed in a fire. Her husband is a writer supposedly crippled by writer’s block. He often fills his time tucked away in a study gazing at odd knick knacks, like a mysterious gem he keeps on a pedestal and protects like he’s Gollum. Sometimes he appears to just wonder off into the neighboring woods. I got the sense when the movie started that she wakes up almost every morning to an empty bed and plays a slightly sad game of hide and seek.
Their routine is upended when a man (Ed Harris) randomly shows up at their home one night. He claims to be a doctor and seems to think the home is a bed and breakfast where he can rent a room. When the woman looks to her husband to back her up in politely showing him the door, she’s stunned to see that he welcomes the man in and invites him to stay the night. She gives him the first of many looks of confusion and betrayal.
Aronofsky is expertly tuned into his protagonist’s sense of helplessness. The woman thinks there has to be a limit; that eventually her husband will side with her, and that she won’t be the only one putting a foot down. But when the doctor’s wife (a gleefully invasive Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives the next morning with a suitcase and is also invited to stay, it becomes clear that she is more alone than she thought.
mother! traipses around social boundaries to create a gradually increasing sense of isolation. The outsider couple’s story twists and turns, their sense of entitlement to everything at the house growing with each passing minute. Everyone, including the woman’s husband, seems to be operating on an entire different set of behavioral rules than her, and the looks of judgment they all give her when she tries to object to things are enough to get her to go along with the strange set up, at least at first.
The nervously roving camera shares in her sense of claustrophobia, staying pinned to her as she peeks around the many corners and doorways, forced to tiptoe around her own house. Conversations seem to suddenly fall silent when she enters a room. She always appears to be intruding on something. These point of view shots are almost always cut up by close-up reaction shots of Lawrence, capturing her plunge from quiet suspicion and discomfort to rage and terror. When she does want to be alone to continue remodeling, she finds the doctor’s wife thrusting hard lemonade on her and probing her about her sex life and why she doesn’t have any children.
At times, the house itself seems to be turning on her. She looks down to the floor and sees it briefly return to the ashy post-fire ruin. An old blood stain on the floor seems to grow and grow until it soaks through the floor and covers a lightbulb in the basement below. The bulb explodes when it’s turned on and covers the wall in red.
mother! could have very well gone on like this for its entire two hour run-time. The four core actors are all superb, and the initial set-up is a deliciously executed chamber drama. Its creeping paranoia is eventually thrown out the window, though, as Aronofksy abruptly descends his movie into madness in the final stretch. Certainly not everyone will gel with mother!‘s chaotic, horrifying final act, and there are things depicted here that go entirely too far. The movie is hard to shake, though. It makes you feel its protagonist’s powerlessness and horror. I respected its audacity enough to put the ridiculous exclamation point on the end of the title every time I typed it.