By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and Ed Harris
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
If it wasn’t already taken, GET OUT would have been a very appropriate title for the new screen fever dream by Darren Aronofsky. As it stands, the fact that “mother” (lower-case) is the way Jennifer Lawrence’s heroine is billed in the closing credits, while her husband played by Javier Bardem is identified only as “Him” (upper-case), speaks to a religious subtext that’s just one of the allegories boiling under the film’s increasingly unhinged surface.
Those who experience the movie will be left with any number of potential readings of it, but the emotional impact is undeniable. “mother!” creeps deep under your skin for the first hour or so, then grabs you by the throat and shakes you during the final act. Aronofsky has always been fond of heightened emotions, but he’s never gone for so much broke as he does here.
After an opening image suggesting the conflagratory developments to come, Aronofsky brings the calm before the storm in a series of quiet, composed scenes establishing the home life of Lawrence and Bardem’s married couple. She’s been restoring their isolated, rustic mansion since it suffered severe fire damage some time before, and he’s a poet suffering a bout of writer’s block. There’s a timelessness to the setting (no cell phones—just an old rotary model on the wall—or other electronics on view), and mother seems a model of old-fashioned domesticity, barefoot throughout the film and wanting to get pregnant. Whether her husband wants it seems in doubt, though: “We always talk about how this place is too big for the two of us,” he tells a visitor, and her reaction says they haven’t talked about it nearly enough.
That visitor is a stranger (Ed Harris) who arrives on their doorstep one day and is welcomed a little too enthusiastically by Him. Then the newcomer’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up, making intrusive and condescending inquiries of mother, and the situation inexorably spirals out of control. The first hour of “mother!” is a perfectly modulated, inexorably tense portrait of a woman watching her home situation spin out of her grasp; if BLACK SWAN was Aronofsky’s adoption of the REPULSION paradigm, “mother!” is very much informed by another Roman Polanski classic, ROSEMARY’S BABY. As opposed to that film’s heroine being swallowed up by all of New York City, however, mother remains helplessly confined to her own middle-of-nowhere home; there isn’t an exterior establishing shot until a crucial moment midway through the movie.
This could have become overly theatrical, but Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique avoid any staginess by keeping the camera constantly mobile, and engender sympathy by fixing it constantly on mother, following her through the house as she tries vainly to retain control over her circumstances. Lawrence is terrific, running the full gamut of emotions from subtle to outsized, as her attempts to contain her composure in the face of the unwanted guests cedes to attempts to rid her home of them and ultimately a desperation to escape from them. Bardem effectively keeps you guessing about His motivations; he seems loving at first, but just the fact that he’s old enough to be mother’s father is a little creepy from the start, and his willingness to ignore her in favor of the adulation of his new friends fuels mother’s and the audience’s discomfort.
It also establishes “mother!” as a statement about how the desire of an artist for vindication can supersede all else, and the movie is chock full of visual metaphors, some of which can be read more than one way. (It also contains visual shout-outs to THE EVIL DEAD and TENEBRAE, among other past fright films.) Aronofsky doesn’t give you a lot of time to ponder Meaning while you’re watching the movie’s opening hour, though, as he completely wraps you up in mother’s escalating plight. Once things subsequently go completely batshit-crazy off the rails, the events go so far over the top that it’s hard to accept them as reality, even as you know Aronofsky is too shrewd to be headed for an it-was-all-a-dream/fantasy explanation. While the sheer force of the filmmaking keeps you caught up, simply wondering what the hell is going to happen next, it’s hard to resist mentally stepping back to wonder what it all means (like whether hell is what’s literally happening).
However you read or respond to the implications of all the madness, it’s hard to resist its intensity. Aronofsky and his creative team bring the full force of their craft to “mother!”, as does the cast supporting the transfixing turns by Lawrence and Bardem. Harris and Pfeiffer are insinuating perfection, and a familiar genre face shows up later to add some extra creep factor. All the people on view eventually become overwhelmed by the chaos Aronofsky conjures up, and the movie successfully strives to swallow you whole too.