“mother!” begins as a slow burn and builds toward a furious blaze. Awash in both religious and contemporary political imagery, Darren Aronofsky’s allusive film opens itself to a number of allegorical readings, but it also works as a straight-ahead head rush. Not just another baroquely orchestrated big-screen freak-out in the vein of “Black Swan” (though it is very much that), the film touches on themes that — if too hazily figurative to be in any way autobiographical — at least tread on factors in the director’s own life.
Come for the house that bleeds; stay for the reflections on parenthood and the difficulty of living with fame.
The film is divided into two parts that roughly parallel one another for reasons that eventually make themselves clear. Both follow married couple Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem (and yes, their nearly 20-year age gap is an important and oft-commented upon plot point), who go unnamed as a way of telegraphing that they’re meant to represent Bigger Things. The credits list her as “mother” and him as, well, “Him,” and that disparity in proper capitalization is yet another clue as to the power dynamic between them.
The two live off in the countryside in his stately old manse. The house was nearly destroyed long before they married, and they’ve returned to fix it up before starting a family. That’s her plan, anyway. He — a world-famous poet with a bad case of writer’s block — mostly sits in his study and broods over the empty page. At least, until the Man (Ed Harris) comes-a-knockin’. The Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) — and chaos — soon follows.
Aronofsky and Paramount have launched one of the more secretive marketing campaigns in recent memory, which is odd because “mother!” is a not a particularly twisty-turny affair. Both parts of the film play out like the first few chapters of “The Hobbit,” where a growing number of unexpected guests pop in to break the leads’ bucolic solitude, and twist them toward different ends.
The first part plays as an impish psychological thriller, with Man and Woman foisting their own family drama on the childless central couple. It coasts on delicious, low-simmering interactions, like when the cat-like Pfeiffer playfully interrogates the more restrained and shy Lawrence, unearthing all of the younger woman’s innate insecurities, before devolving into outright chaos. The second part finds the now nine-months-pregnant Lawrence contending with the throngs of fans who have come to meet her husband, but spins it toward an apocalyptic frenzy.
Husband Bardem welcomes the visitors in both acts, tying the pandemonium into his own artistic life. In the first part, the chaotic new guests lend him the inspiration to finish his new text; in the second, the masses come to herald its soaring success. But the film does not follow Bardem; it follows Lawrence for nearly every single one of its hefty 120 minutes.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s handheld camera bops and swerves alongside the lead, often holding her in tight super-16 close-ups (fans of the both dynamic actress and celluloid grain are about to have a field day) that capture her growing horror as her life spirals out of control. The camera also stays within the confines of the house for the film’s full length, save one exterior shot around 45 minutes, which makes us gasp because it’s the first time we’ve seen the outside.
Aronofsky doesn’t lean toward claustrophobia. He externalizes his lead character’s horror into the foundations of the house. The house bleeds, it has oddly human-looking orifices, it has a beating heart. Aronofsky sends his characters into a nightmarish dreamscape that grows and evolves, particularly in the bonkers last third, which builds in pitch, scope, and sheer cinematic audacity, picking up overt religious and political resonance.
The film freely dips from both Testaments. Lawrence’s character ties it to the Garden of Eden at one point, noting “I want to make a Paradise.” It becomes anything but. In one way or another, the film references all 10 of Pharaoh’s plagues (up to and including the last one. This film goes places), and trots in real-life brothers Domnhall and Brian Gleeson to play versions of Cain and Abel. At one point the film engages in a brazen act of cannibalism, forcing us to confront specific religious dogma.
It also forces us to confront specific political overtones. As characters swarm the Bardem and Lawrence home, they bring with them the fissures and ongoing conflicts of the outside world. “mother!” does not try to evoke specific images, as Alfonso Cuaron did in “Children of Men” or even Bong Joon-ho in “Okja,” but it has a similarly bracing effect. As rioters, protesters, and refugees overtake the house, Aronosfky’s political message becomes clear.
Try and hide all you want. You’re still a part of this world, and it’s coming for you.
“mother!” premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It will hit theaters on September 15.