Dear reader: Before taking my star rating as a recommendation, you should know that this passion project from offbeat writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Black Swan) received a rare F grade from the audience metric CinemaScore.
That means the average viewer exited the theater deeply disgruntled about a film that was marketed as an upmarket thriller and turned out to be ... different. Whether its difference is good or bad depends on your tolerance for earnest and extensive (but unorthodox) biblical allegory, surreal gross-out imagery, taboo breaking, and tight close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence. One thing's for sure: By the end credits, Mother! is likely to have divided the audience into the angrily alienated, the cultishly devoted and the simply baffled.
At first, you may think you're watching a talky drama about a mismatched couple whose boorish houseguests expose the fissures in their relationship. Javier Bardem and Lawrence live in an octagonal Victorian house in the woods. He's a famous poet with writer's block; she's devoted herself to restoring their home, which, we're told, fire had once destroyed.
The first hint of the story's hyperreal dimensions arrives when Lawrence, painting a wall, appears to see through it to some sort of gooey, pulsing organic matter. (It's a very Eraserhead moment, and not the film's last.) Then there are the mysterious high-pitched sounds that torment her, forcing her to drink an orange potion to keep them at bay.
Her escalating neuroses coincide with the arrival of a sickly stranger (Ed Harris) seeking a room for the night. He's followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), a cold-eyed vamp who zeroes in on the younger woman's insecurities.
Bardem's character sees nothing wrong with the guests' increasingly bizarre impositions; their attention clearly feeds his artist's ego. Is Lawrence's character succumbing to paranoia, or did she marry a monster? Or is something completely different going on here?
When the guests' two grown sons show up and send the film on a bloody detour, it's hard to miss the reference to Genesis — or to keep seeing the story as strictly grounded in reality. From this point on, Mother! evolves into a mythic, apocalyptic tale of one woman fighting to keep her house clean — and, yes, I think we're supposed to find humor there.
Horror, too. Like both comedy and nightmares, Mother! is structured by grindingly inevitable repetition: Whatever the heroine builds will be destroyed. Whatever she cleans will be soiled. (In a recurring motif, blood seeps up through the floor.) We can't actually laugh at the absurdity, though, because the director never lets us leave the protagonist's perspective. Keeping the camera tight on Lawrence's face, he shows us the action beyond her in confused snatches, making us feel like a frightened child experiencing the world through its mother's reactions.
And what a world it is — more and more dreamlike, chaotic and ominous, and finally full-on horrific. As transgressive as horror films ever get, Mother! will still frustrate many fans of that genre. Its first half has slow stretches, its repetitions can be taxing and Bardem's character remains enigmatic: charismatic sociopath, pathetic attention whore or both?
Then again, if we follow the clues in the film, that enigma could be the whole point. It's easy to do a College Lit 101 exegesis on Mother!, not so easy to shake it off. Many viewers will want to. But all will agree that this familiar story, told from a noncanonical and distinctly unsettling perspective, is one they're unlikely to forget.