Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star in Darren Aronofsky's Mother!, a mind-bending shocker whose mysteries need to be unpacked and then unpacked again
Darren Aronofsky has never been afraid of the outlandish and mind-bending, but with Mother! he enters into new realms, crafting a hellish, anxiety-ridden house of horrors chamber piece that earns its titular exclamation mark many times over.
Comparisons to The Fountain are likely, yet Mother! shares more in common with Aronofsky’s much-derided Noah. If that Old Testament epic was inspired by the tale of the deluge in the book of Genesis, Mother!'s inspiration is the fire and fury of the apocalyptic Revelation. Religious iconography is rife and this allegorical tale is densely packed, with plenty of layers to peel back. Chiefly though, the pleasure of Mother! is found in its mystery, strangeness, and horror.
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are an unnamed couple living in a remote house in dire need of repair following a horrendous fire. Bardem is a frustrated poet and author of merit, but can’t seem to muster his muse. With an anachronistic fountain pen in hand (no laptops, or indeed mobile phones, are present in this film) he wiles away his days suffering from writer’s block. Meanwhile Lawrence, the more practical and tenderly of the couple, is repairing their home and giving it a new lease of life.
On paper, their life is idyllic – cut off from the outside world, rebuilding a home together. But something isn’t right; things are off-kilter. Their relationship is sexless, their conversation practical and only one person’s needs are being met. They seem to merely occupy the same space – and what a strange space it is.
The house is kept permanently pristine by Lawrence, while Bardem locks himself away in his study where he keeps a mysterious crystal, and refuses to allow her in without being present. Then there is the shadowy, cavernous basement. Their home is like a cross between the Psycho house and Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel in The Shining. It’s all enough to make you reach for a copy of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space or Dante’s Inferno (or should that be Purgatorio?).
Whatever their marital problems, things are about to get worse with the rude intrusion of surprise guests in the form of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Harris is a doctor with a hacking cough, but doesn’t let that get in the way of his smoking. Lawrence is fearful of Harris’s abrupt arrival, but when Bardem discovers he's a fan of his work, the doctor is welcomed with open arms (at least by Bardem). Then Harris’s wife appears, played with cat-clawing menace by Pfeiffer. This new house guest is happy to criticise everything Lawrence does while knocking back as many vodkas as possible.
Then things become even stranger. Lawrence is struck by a stomach pain, and cancerous black holes start to form in the woodwork of the house. More and more guests begin to arrive, and time seems to speed up, even jump, racing toward a heart-thumping crescendo.
Everything in Mother! is gleefully over the top, but nothing is wasted. There are scalpel-sharp critiques of everything, from what it means to be an artist to celebrity culture, and perhaps even a dig at the iCloud hacking scandal. Aronofsky has certainly opened up his own heart on screen.
This is a film to be unpacked and then unpacked again, and is likely to trigger a myriad of interpretations, which is all part of the joy. Whatever your take from it, Mother! is nothing less than a shocking delight of apocalyptic proportions.