Couples in the midst of a house-renovation project might want to hold off on seeing Mother!, writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s stomach-churning allegory about marriage, parenthood, religion, and art, until the last hole in the wall has been spackled. Otherwise they may find themselves wondering whether that chip in the plaster is about to become a festering sore, the way the smoothly finished surfaces of the grand Victorian house that’s this movie’s only setting keep revealing disturbingly organic properties.
Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman listed in the credits only as “Mother,” though as the film begins she is childless; her considerably older husband (Javier Bardem) gets no name other than “Him.” He is a once-successful poet struggling with writer’s block; she has no occupation other than restoring the home they share—which, we learn in an oblique prologue, was once destroyed in a fire—to a state of pristine beauty. While he broods over empty pages in his study, she plasters, paints, cooks, and cleans. “We spend all of our time here,” she tells him, in a line that foreshadows the claustrophobia and hothouse madness to come. “I want to make it a paradise.”
But Paradise, as the Bible has taught us, is a piece of real estate whose deed comes with certain ominous riders: There must be a fall from grace, a disruption of idyllic coexistence by sin, and the equal and opposite possibility of something like hell. These begin to intrude on the life of our nameless couple in the form of Ed Harris, who, as a stranger traveling through town, rings their doorbell one afternoon, claiming to have been falsely informed that the old house is a bed and breakfast. With surprising alacrity, he manages to turn it into just that, moving into the couple’s guest room for the night after it’s revealed that he’s a big fan of the husband’s books. The next day he’s joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer in hilarious top form), a catty, nosy woman who follows Lawrence’s Mother around the house plying her with alcohol and questions about everything from her sex life to her future plans for childbearing. The older couple is inconsiderate, demanding, and blithely oblivious to the disruption they’re causing in their hosts’ lives, but Bardem’s Him, once so protective of his writerly privacy, is strangely unwilling to kick them out despite his confused wife’s pleas. It’s in this early stretch, which mixes domestic comedy with elements of psychological horror, that Mother! most resembles Rosemary’s Baby, which, along with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, is a clear influence on the story.
To get much further into the plot would be to give away spoilers that are as thematic as they are narrative. The older couple’s squabbling adult sons arrive, played by real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson. Acts of violence are committed, both upon human flesh and upon the tasteful furnishings Mother has spent so long putting into place. There’s a brief interim of return to marital calm, followed by a third act that spirals into places so bizarre it makes Black Swan, Aronofsky’s earlier foray into female madness and body horror, look like a sweet little ballet drama. At a certain point the director’s allegorical long game comes into focus, but understanding what he’s up to in broad strokes does little to explain the proliferation of freaky details. What is the copper-colored powder that Lawrence’s character keeps dissolving in water to drink? What’s the significance of the crystal-like gem her husband keeps in his home office and seems to prize so highly? Why in God’s name are the basement walls oozing with blood?
The cast’s intense commitment to this flamboyantly weird fairytale, along with cinematographer and longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique’s skillful deployment of the handheld camera to track the young wife’s psychic dissolution (or is it the world around her that’s dissolving?), make the last half of Mother! a tough watch. Some viewers may find that the cost the film exacts in temple-throbbing queasiness isn’t worth the payoff of the last few minutes, which explain the meaning of that crystal in terms that are less than crystal clear. And the complaint could certainly be lodged that, unlike the protagonists of, say, Rosemary’s Baby, the lead couple are not so much believable characters as they are moving pieces in a cleverly designed and gleefully nasty board game. But Aronofksy’s skill at invoking strong sensations in the viewer can’t be denied. This is the kind of movie that often racks up more than a few walkouts but also makes for passionate postscreening conversations. On the escalator out of the multiplex where I saw it, people were already debating and WTF-ing, sometimes while laughing at the intensity of their own responses. (Whole arguments could be had just about Aronofsky’s insistence on styling the title with a lowercase M, though no one would question the aptness of the exclamation point.)
Introduced to his host’s much younger spouse for the first time, Ed Harris’ intruder remarks with a mixture of envy and disapproval, “Your wife? I thought it was your daughter.” Among its many broader thematic concerns—environmental destruction, religious fanaticism, the toxicity of fame—Mother! is a portrait of a crumbling relationship between artist and muse, as well as a merciless indictment of the artist-muse tradition in all its patriarchal violence. Even if you’re not a reader of the tabloids, this element of the story can’t help but recall both the filmmaker’s yearslong engagement to his ex-leading lady Rachel Weisz and his current romance with Lawrence, whom he began dating after filming on Mother! ended and whose age difference from his approximates the one between her character and Bardem’s. Insofar as it’s a parable about the conflict between love and art, Mother! comes down finally, however unsentimentally, on the side of love. But it also stands as an icily self-sufficient work of art, forged like that diamond-hard piece of crystal from its creator’s rage and pain. If my partner made a movie like this inspired by me, I would hesitate a long time before taking on the project of spackling his walls.