Mother!—Darren Aronofsky’s beguiling, frustrating new thriller—is the kind of movie that makes me want to avoid the internet for a century. It simply plays into a few too many of the current discourse’s most tedious habits—and I suspect that Aronofsky knows and enjoys as much. It’s a giant allegorical soup, for one thing, a clashing mishmash of stories and meanings ranging from the plight of a selfish male artist and his wifely muse to, well, the fate of the planet. You can’t accuse the movie of having too little ambition or too few ideas.
But there’s the rub. Mother! isn’t exactly a puzzle; its abundant biblical parallels, for example, are characteristically obvious. But Aronofsky, who has shrouded the movie in secrecy, invites us to treat it like a puzzle from the very first frame, in which the face of a crying woman disappears into a sea of flames. That’s our intro: a woman being burned alive—evidence, maybe, of the kind of violence in store for our titular lady, which is the other reason I’m leaving the internet. It’s mischief—and Aronofsky is well aware of how prone we are to taking the bait. I say this as someone who kind of likes the movie: don’t.
Mother! is set in a big white house on an unnamed prairie, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a vacuum. That’s a great deal for the man living there, whose name the credits simply list as Him. He’s a famous poet, and, as played with an enjoyable air of menace by Javier Bardem, he’s a totem of artistic frustration. He hasn’t gotten any writing done recently; he needs inspiration. His younger wife, whom he calls Mother despite their having no children, is played by Jennifer Lawrence. She’s a happyish homemaker, the kind of spouse to only-too-readily take care of all the practicalities of living—cooking, cleaning, repainting the house, picking all the furniture, entertaining guests—that some artists, and many men, apparently have no time for. “We spend a lot of time here,” she says. “I want to make paradise.”
She’s right: They do spend a lot of time in that house. She never leaves it, not that there seems to be anywhere else worth going. But then other people begin to arrive, among them a Man and Woman, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, who claim to be the poet’s biggest fans. Their appearance spurs the arrivals of many others, seemingly all of it happening at the poet’s insistence, well beyond Mother’s control. It unfolds with the kind of anxious urgency that tips you off, early on, to something genuinely strange being amiss. This isn’t just a parable of a dickish artist taking advantage of his wife (though it’s that, too); it’s something weirder. And to his credit, Aronofsky is, as ever, clued into how to make you nervous. Mother! quickly announces itself as a movie in the classic thriller tradition of wives who are suspicious of their husbands. The turbulent close-ups from Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are back, as is the thrillingly overwrought sound design, which fashions every anxious step across the wooden floor of the house into a thud that’s somehow louder and heavier than it’s supposed to be.
It’s tough to say more without giving it all away. Suffice it to say that when The Verge speculates that Mother! will be “2017’s most hated movie,” it’s in part because the movie is incredibly ridiculous. But when isn’t Aronofsky ridiculous? That instinct has sometimes led him astray. But it’s just as often pushed him in unusually thrilling directions, as in the case of his biggest hit, Black Swan, which is so psychosexually ludicrous—and knowingly so—that it transforms an already psychologically lurid tale of artistic obsession into outright pulp. This is why Aronofsky is a director I’ve never enjoyed arguing about. If the premise of your case against him is that his movies are over the top and fantastically silly, I can’t say I disagree, only that I don’t mind silly. Aronofsky treats melodrama like fantasy—which it is—and then perverts it to his own odd little ends. It’s corny, but so are movies.
Part of what makes Aronofsky’s movies feel so extra is the strain he seems to enjoy putting on his actors—and the pleasure he asks us to take from that. “I think Darren takes great pleasure in seeing you go through pain,” Ray Winstone, who played the biblical villain Tubal-Caine in Aronofsky’s Noah, once told The New Yorker. “You go again and again and again. He pushes you to the limit, looking for perfection.” Winstone got sunstroke while filming, losing motor function in his right arm. And who could forget wincing their way through Mickey Rourke’s fighting stunts in The Wrestler?
You wouldn’t expect it from the premise or the first hour and a half of Mother!, but Jennifer Lawrence is eventually called upon for what feels like an equally athletic, exhausting performance, and I predict it’ll cause a lot of chatter in the movie’s disfavor. I think it’s a great turn for the often comically miscast Lawrence, who gets to bring a weird mix of scream-queen vulnerability and placid domesticity to this role, all of it doe-eyed and seemingly put-on, like she’s Mia Farrow by way of Bambi (or Bambi’s mom, really). It’s either an outright thankless role or, if you buy the movie as an allegory, a thrilling imitation of one. Either way, it largely amounts to her playing a doting housewife who’s freaking out over all the unannounced guests and broken furniture. (I look forward to the IMDB trivia page telling me how many times she says, “Who are you?” or “What are you doing here?”) It’s all so frantic—the “But my house!” freakouts eventually, comically, overwhelm the movie.
Michelle Pfeiffer, meanwhile, is having the time of her life, pursing her lips, snarling at Lawrence, refusing to mind her own business. She pries into Lawrence and Bardem’s sex life and then offers up cunning jabs like, “Wow, you really love him. God help you.” There’s a meanness to all of this—the whole movie—that I kind of love, even as it eventually wears itself thin. It’s possible that there’s too much going on, particularly regarding Aronofsky’s ideas, for the movie to prove entirely satisfying. Then again, it mostly works for me as a giant, sloppy mash-up of theme and event, every layer of the story seeming to bounce and pivot off of all the others. When I try to think through any of its threads on their own terms—the artist and his muse, for example—I get a little … not bored, but OK, sure: bored. What magic there is, for me, is in the mix.
The allegory, which harkens back to continual Aronofsky themes, both spiritual and environmental, shouldn’t be spoiled. But it’s maybe less exciting than the one the movie kept setting me up to expect. There’s a wonderful idea in here somewhere about what artists do to their subjects, what happens when nature is fashioned into artistic form and meted out to an audience to do with as they please. Civilization is what happens. Aronofsky’s eagerness to chip away at that idea is invigorating—moreso, probably, than the actual movie.