A maddening, nerve-shredding masterstroke of auteur ballsiness, "mother!" is writer-director Darren Aronofsky's (2010's "Black Swan
") jolting answer to cinematically capturing what it is like to be trapped in a nightmare. A literal nightmare, that is, born from the infernal bowels of one's most distressing subconscious reaches. From beginning to end, he does not let up, sweeping along viewers and his increasingly frustrated, baffled, horrified protagonist for a ride on a runaway train that keeps accelerating even as its parts begin to dismantle and its destination careens ever closer toward a cliff of nothingness. Inspiring awe and, at times, virtual disbelief in the taboo places Aronofsky dares to take his heightened, sky's-the-limit narrative, "mother!" superficially reminds (whether intentional or not) of Roman Polanski, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Gaspar Noé while nevertheless invoking its own singularly blazing vision.
The mother (Jennifer Lawrence) of the title, it turns out, isn't a mother at all, she and her esteemed poet husband (Javier Bardem) living a life of halcyon solitude in the rural fixer-upper farmhouse where he grew up. Like a sewing machine needle piercing the night, their tranquil existence is abruptly and unpleasantly interrupted by the knock of a man (Ed Harris) at their front door. He claims to have mistakenly assumed their home was a bed-and-breakfast, and before she knows it her husband has invited this stranger to spend the night with them. The next day another unwanted visitor arrives in the form of the man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), a meddling force of nature who sweeps in and threatens to take over. Others will follow, including the mysterious couple's bickering grown sons (Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson). The more out of control everything becomes, the more helpless our disheartened and bewildered heroine grows. If she doesn't find a way to stop this madness before it's too late, might she be swallowed up entirely?
"mother!" demands discussion, but ideally not before each viewer has taken the time to mentally process what has been experienced. In weeks, years, and decades to come, countless think pieces will be written on its overflowing bounty of challenging thematic threads and subjective takeawaysabout the struggles to retain control and find purpose in a temporary life, about the sacrifices people make for love, about the dehumanizing price of fame and the objectification of celebrity when not even one's own privacy is sacred. It is also, yes, about motherhoodboth the love and protectiveness that comes with it and the horror that can so easily seep into its foundation. When so many films inspire an indifferent response or are happy to work only on the level of disposable entertainment, it is the ones which dare to forge their own original, ambitious paths that will live on as something altogether greater and more fascinating. "mother!" does things its own way while saying so much not even a 500-page dissertation could cover it all.
The rapturous camerawork by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (2016's "Money Monster
") aids in the encroaching paranoia, at times emulating the invasive façade of a paparazzo refusing to back away from his subject. That central subject is Jennifer Lawrence (2016's "Passengers
"), unleashing a tour de force performance that could just as easily double as a battling cry for the neglected, the persecuted, and the disenfranchised. Confused and then understandably irate as her home is overrun and mistreated by people she doesn't know, she clings to a need for order where there no longer is any present. No matter how hard she tries to command authority and let her own voice be heard, she is minimized, not listened to, and ultimately swept asidea searing metaphor if there ever was one for the inherent sexism and misogyny which continues to penetrate our everyday, largely patriarchal society.
The other actors play their parts with the vigor this extreme material calls for. Javier Bardem (2013's "The Counselor
") is perfectly warm yet distant as the husband, a man of the people who too easily commits himself to the wants and desires of his admirers without taking the time to do the same for the woman to whom he is married. As the evasive couple who soon become the most unwelcome guests possible, Michelle Pfeiffer (2012's "Dark Shadows
") and Ed Harris (2014's "Snowpiercer
") are indelible and appropriately infuriating, their smiling veneers in direct opposition to the vicious, disrespectful methods in which they turn the house upside down. Pfeiffer's one-on-one scenes with Lawrence are especially electric, full of initially obligated niceties that fast take a turn as this unusual interloper repeatedly oversteps her boundaries.
It is best to not speak of or reveal what happens in the inconceivably brazen second half of "mother!," and many would likely be hard-pressed to adequately explain it even if they tried. Where Aronofsky takes his lead character is both alarming and at one with all that has gone before, a spiral into the outer reaches of sanity and existence. The results, playing out over a two-hour period of immense discombobulation and mountainous apprehension, is harrowing spectacle brought to quaking cinematic life. "It feels like it was written for me," Lawrence's Mother says upon reading her husband's latest transcendent opus. "Well, of course it was," he responds. While these words bear more ominous inferences within this picture's context, they also hold a key human truth. After all, isn't this the case of any great art which seems to individually speak to our very core? Clearly someone else's book or film or painting wasn't created precisely for us, but what a thing of beauty it is to experience such an innate, intimate connection it suddenly seems possible that it was. "mother!" is magnificent, a surrealistic maelstrom of unthinkable terror and staggering cathartic power. In more ways than can be counted, it feels like it was written for me.