When Darren Aronofsky introduced “mother!” to a crowd of insiders at the Metrograph in New York, he took pains to explain the movie’s allegory before it started. A week later, after the movie had screened for audiences in Venice and Toronto, he still wasn’t sure if that had been the right decision. “mother!” has been shrouded in secrecy for the better part of the year, with its eerie premise suggesting a visceral horror movie in the vein of “Rosemary’s Baby,” when the truth is something far harder to describe.
Fortunately, nothing Aronofsky says will actually spoil the experience of watching “mother!”, a bracing visceral experience about a married couple (Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence) and the unexpected visitors who arrive at their remote country home. The movie is an abstract psychological thriller with the most intangible twists since his 1999 debut “Pi,” with virtually every moment designed to introduce new elements of mystery and symbolism. It’s a daring bet for the filmmaker, one that struck some viewers as too blunt or esoteric, while others have been thrilled by its labyrinthine mysteries. Irrespective of the movie’s divisiveness, however, no one can argue that any of the outlandish marketing actually spoils the movie.
And there has been a lot of it. The trailer outlines a pretty straightforward psychological thriller, Paramount mailed bloody heart-shaped cakes to journalists, and Aronofsky endorsed an enigmatic scavenger hunt to generate further hype. These details suggest a visceral genre story with a deep mythology at the root of its narrative. In fact, “mother!” is primarily an atmospheric cinematic experience carried by the strength of its two performers, and Aronofsky’s ability to render the search for meaning in its narrative into means rather than the end of this endlessly fascinating experience.
So watch the trailer all you want. This fleeting glimpse lays out a seemingly obvious spooky formula, with Lawrence’s nameless character increasingly baffled by the arrival of an older couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) while Bardem welcomes them. “They’re here for me,” he reveals with a spooky grin, and the climactic shot of Lawrence screaming bloody murder suggests that devious forces have conspired against her. All of these events transpire in “mother!”, but they don’t even begin to explain the essence of the movie’s appeal, or the explanations behind its twisty developments.
Aronofsky’s Kafkaesque journey begins at a place of utopian ideals and plunges gradually into chaos, with Lawrence’s baffled reaction shots, captured in alarming closeups, driving the story forward more than any specific revelation. The final half hour finds hordes of new people arriving at the creaky home, with bursts of violence and anger intensifying the drama at such a rapid-fire pace it’s impossible to fully absorb every detail the first time through. Aronofsky takes viewers from a schlocky two-hander about marriage problems to apocalyptic extremes in two hours, careening through an expansive statement about life, the universe and everything without actually explaining anything too precise. The real work starts when the credits roll.
Multiple explanations for Aronofsky’s thematic ambition have percolated among festival audiences, and it’s likely that they will continue to intensify as Paramount releases “mother!” on thousands of screens across the country. Even the people who hate it will find something to debate. A shockingly unconventional movie by studio-produced standards, its ambiguity strikes a welcome contrast to the neatly-packaged ingredients of so many commercial stories. In an age dominated by pre-packaged entertainment options, when handy plot synopses are just one google search away, “mother” provides a refreshing alternative.
Paramount has had a field day with it. “The whole sort of campaign has been about mystery,” Aronofsky said at a TIFF press conference. “As you’re watching it, you think you’re watching one thing and it shifts and becomes something else. I like that. I don’t want to give too much away.”
Lawrence, sitting to his side, interrupted. “I will. I’ve been doing it every day.” Later, she clarified. “I don’t see the allegory as a spoiler,” she said. “But maybe you’ll have me executed.”
The divide between actor and director, who are also a real-life couple, may point to many conversations among moviegoers leaving “mother!” together as the movie takes on a national identity. Aronofsky’s best movies have always been disorienting journeys into the instability of the human mind, but “mother!” takes that motif to a new extreme by projecting that experience onto its audience. Let the debates begin.