★ for the Aronofsky agnostic
★★★★ for the Aronofsky acolyte
In the beginning, so we're told, God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning of Mother!, Darren Aronofsky creates a heaven on earth.
Paradise here is a massive octagonal wooden home in the middle of the countryside, inhabited by a nameless woman (Jennifer Lawrence), who has spent who knows how long sprucing it up, and her similarly anonymous poet husband (Javier Bardem), who's spent the same amount of time struggling with writer's block. The two are in love – or so each of them professes – and their days are filled with leisurely meals, lazy wanderings from room to room and furtive glances at the giant, mysterious crystal the husband keeps in his study.
Until one day, when a stranger (Ed Harris) comes knocking at the door. He's looking for help, and the husband takes a shine to him. The woman – she's not quite sure of the man's intentions. Soon enough, the stranger's arrival is followed by that of his drunken, overtly sexual wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). And then their two warring sons (Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson) show up. And then – well, all hell breaks loose. In an extraordinarily literal sense.
And this is where Mother! either falls apart or opens up a chasm so wide that it threatens to swallow the theatre whole. Which is what happens when a filmmaker decides to play God – and make no mistake, Mother! is Aronofsky's very own creation myth, a profoundly upsetting and furious apology for what he considers humanity's original sin: existence.
If that sounds grandiose, it is nothing compared with the gonzo experiment Aronofsky has devised. Up to this point, the marketing campaign for Mother! has been light on details, heavy on atmosphere. Perhaps you've seen the trailers and assumed the film was a modern spin on Rosemary's Baby or The Shining – an eerie thriller centred on a young woman whose better half succumbs to some unspeakable evil. That log line is true in a sense. But there is so much more to Mother! – and also so much less.
Without wading too deep into spoiler waters, Mother! is a tale of what happens when a creative mind is given unfettered power and destroys almost everything in his (or His) wake. That indictment applies to both Bardem's character, who takes and takes from Lawrence's put-upon wife without giving her anything in return, and Aronofsky himself, who mines a history of genre tropes only to dismantle everything cinema stands for. In 121 minutes, the writer-director creates a vision that is equal parts horror, satire, polemic and sheer abomination.
For those devout members of the Church of Aronofsky – basically, anyone who has stuck with the auteur since catching Requiem for a Dream on cable when they were 14 and realizing that movies could be as scuzzy and dangerous as the mind's own limits – Mother! is a masterpiece. A frenzied plunge into Aronofsky's deepest fears and humanity's darkest temptations, it can be viewed as the latest escalation in the director's bombastic aesthetic, all chaos and carnage.
For those who remain skeptical of Aronofsky's previous efforts (even his most mainstream film, The Wrestler, is mired in darkness), Mother! will spark instant revulsion, even charges of heresy. Here he goes again, screeching into the megaphone like a grad student leading his first march on insert-corrupt-institution-here. Aronofsky is never one to whisper, but he shouts so often that he risks losing his voice entirely.
Yet even those who find themselves sitting between these two camps are guaranteed to walk away from Mother! feeling … something. Perhaps enlightenment. Or outrage. Or just a general sense of gobsmacked disbelief. By uniting the themes of his entire filmography – Pi's obsession with the secrets of the Almighty, Black Swan's focus on the damage done to female bodies for the sake of the male ego, Noah's belief that God is a cruel and jealous creator – and wrapping them in barbed-wire visuals engineered to churn the most cynical viewer's stomach, the director has reached peak Aronofsky.
Mother! is an unparalleled achievement, entirely unprecedented and unexpected in this era of studio filmmaking. However Aronofsky convinced Paramount to fund this film and roll it out in wide release is an act of God itself, a true modern miracle. By the time, about three-quarters in, that Lawrence's character suffers an unimaginable betrayal – followed, not one minute later, by an even more horrifying twist of the knife – it is impossible to deny Aronofsky's sheer audacity, as well as the gall of those who funded such fearlessness.
The world is lucky to have Mother! I am lucky to have witnessed it. Lawrence and Bardem and Harris and Pfeiffer are lucky to have worked on such a once-in-a-lifetime project. But I am also happy that I will never have to watch it again.