Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an existential thriller that straddles multiple genres. It has the feel of a horror film, but plays out like a mystery with deep philosophical undertones. There’s a lot to like and dislike here. The filmmaking aspects are superb. The camerawork, editing, sound, and production design are magnificent. They amplify the acting performances to create a dark and mysterious atmosphere. Where Aronofsky goes off the rails is the substance. A long runtime and avalanche of absurdity pops the mood like an over-inflated balloon. Mother! lacks nuance in the end. There is an overload of artistry when precision is needed.
The entire film takes place in a gothic house set in an open field. The characters are not named. Their titles are inferred by placement in the story. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Mother, the beautiful young wife to Him (Javier Bardem); a renowned writer struggling to find inspiration. The house is being renovated after a fire. Mother does all the work. She dutifully repairs the home and tends to her husband’s needs.
Their idyllic peace is interrupted by a knock at the door. A stranger (Ed Harris) has arrived. Mother is shocked when her husband invites the man to stay overnight. The guest delights him, but arouses her suspicions. The following day, another surprise, the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) has come to join them. While her husband and the stranger become fast friends, his wife is unusually critical of Mother. Why don’t they have any children? Is Mother doing her part to arouse her older hubby? The intruders have a snowball effect as Mother’s world spirals out of control.
Aronofsky’s first act is quite brilliant. You are transfixed as the story slowly comes into focus. The house is a character unto itself. The camera follows Jennifer Lawrence as she winds up and down the creaky staircase. Each nook and cranny of the house has a fraction of dread. It’s damned eerie. The build-up becomes even more intense as the visitors arrive. Something evil is certainly brewing.
The plot then takes off like a rocket. Quiet and subtlety are replaced by a fever pitch of events. The mystery is brought into clear focus, but it’s too much too late. The characters flip a switch and the movie devolves into chaos. It’s fairly obvious what analogy Aronofsky is trying to make. I just wish he’d stuck with the chisel instead of the sledgehammer.
Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer are very strong. Their performances go hand in hand with the technical proficiency. This is where Mother! is most effective. Aronofsky is clearly enamored with his female lead and supporting actress. Lawrence sells the nature and nurture, while Pfeiffer is intimidation gusto. The rest of the film and ancillary characters needed to be treated with the same deference. Javier Bardem is one-note. Much like the climax of Pi and Black Swan, Aronofsky yanks down the black curtain like a zealous magician. The reveal worked well for those films, not so much in Mother!. This is the point where it becomes overblown.
From Paramount Pictures, Mother! is certainly discussion worthy. It is a great vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence’s talent. She’s a versatile actress, her awards cabinet is filled with proof. I appreciated Darren Aronofsky’s initial vision, philosophical take, and director’s acumen. But his third act is not successful. Mother! is more than Rosemary’s Baby in the garden of Eden, but not by much.