Darren Aronofsky's 'mother!' will probably upset you, and that's OK

If nothing else, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, will get you talking. Part psychological thriller, part anarchic horror flick, it is one of the strangest movies to come from a major studio in recent years — and Aronofsky seems to revel in that confusion.

mother! stars Jennifer Lawrence as “mother,” the long-suffering muse of her husband Him, a writer’s blocked poet played by Javier Bardem. The couple lives in a lonely old mansion in the countryside that Lawrence works to restore after a fire while Bardem broods over his lack of creative output following a successful publication some time ago.

Eventually, the pair’s solitude is interrupted by a man (Ed Harris) who turns out to be one of Him’s biggest fans. Open to the praise from his visitor, Him invites the man to stay over. The next morning the man’s wife, played by a Michelle Pfeiffer — channeling her days as Catwoman — joins her husband.

The rest of the family shows up (played by actors and real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) for a little Cain and Abel-style bonding that helps move the film from creepy to all-out carnival of chaos as Lawrence’s carefully built life is torn apart before her eyes. The film’s third act moves things to a fever pitch, and essentially abandons the tenuous reality it had built around its anonymous characters in favor of a bizarre, hellish climax.

If that sounds vague, that’s because it is. Part of the fun — and frustration — about this movie is its turn toward the surreal uncertain ground into which it moves, as well as the onslaught of themes Aronofsky tries to tackle. Aronofsky has clearly been thinking about a lot since his last feature, 2014’s biblical epic Noah, and here he appears to be attempting to fit all of these new ideas into mother!’s two-hour run-time. As a result, the flick comes off as a kind of art-house movie in horror/thriller packaging.

From the religious and political imagery to its remarks on celebrity culture and the nature of creativity, mother! is a film seemingly designed for any number of interpretations, and that lack of a tidy package can be jarring. We expect Hollywood films to have a traditional story structure where there’s the pat ending, but it’s deliberately obtuse and confusing, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Aronofsky doesn’t seems to care — after all, if art is only meant to draw out an emotional response from its viewer, then mother! is successful, if a little overwrought.

Despite the dense nature of the movie’s themes, Aronofsky’s take on the traditional roles men and women play in romantic relationships is the most prominent. As Him continues to use mother as a muse and caretaker, he pays little attention to her needs as he and his guests literally destroy the couple’s home — as well as themselves — in pursuit of satisfying the poet’s insatiable ego. It’s no coincidence that Him is the only character whose name his capitalized.

For all of its ideas, Aronofsky and Lawrence have said the film is an allegory for climate change, but I didn’t read it that way at all. Instead, I saw it as a sort of grand apology by Aronofsky to ex-fiancé Rachel Weisz, or a bit of forewarning to girlfriend Lawrence, who the director began dating after production wrapped on the film. But that’s part of the point, that we bring our own interpretations to the story.

Art-house leanings aside, the horror element of mother! is something to behold. Similar to Aronofsky’s drug drama Requiem for a Dream, mother! pushes the limits of what audiences may find palatable, especially with one particularly grisly (and important!) moment in the third act. It is incredible that the film’s studio, Paramount Pictures, released the movie as it is, especially as superheroes and remakes of reliable properties dominate movie-theater screens. And while the Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining comparisons are obvious, mother! feels refreshing, but in the grossest of ways, depending on your perspective.

Ultimately, that is mother!’s biggest strength. However you interpret the flick, at the very least it will have you talking.

MOVIES

mother!

  • Directed by Darren Aronofsky. With Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
  • Run time: 2 hours, 1 min.
  • Parent's guide: R (violence, nudity, language)
  • Playing at: Area theaters