A tumultuous maelstrom of biblical proportions and carefully controlled excess, “mother!” is the kind of auteur-driven provocation destined to be unpacked and dissected like a cinematic Rubik's Cube.
Like the unwelcome guests that set the storytelling wheels in motion, Darren Aronofsky blistering meditation on the agony of authorship wears out the welcome mat long before the end credits roll. But so much of it is such delirious fun that it's well worth taking the plunge down the “Black Swan” director's newest, wildest rabbit hole.
When we last checked in on Aronofsky, in “Noah,” he was putting his own personal spin on the tale of that animal-filled vessel that braved a global flood. It would appear he is still drawing inspiration from the Old Testament. “Mother!” taps into the maternal paranoia that fueled Roman Polanski's “Rosemary's Baby,” but that comparison only tells half the story. There's a visceral, elemental pull to his latest opus, one that harks back to the Garden of Eden, but while “Noah's” imagery was drowned in water, fire is the driving force that serves as stylistic bookends for “mother!” (Yes, the lowercase “m” and the all-too-accurate exclamation point are most definitely on purpose.)
The film opens with a closeup of a woman's eyes reflecting engulfing flames. We then see a man (Javier Bardem), his face and hands covered in soot, placing what looks like a large diamond on a display case. Those demanding to know what this all means right away are advised to seek more conventional multiplex options. There is no solace or sympathy for you here.
We then peer in a bedroom where a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens and wonders where her beloved is. Exposition is spare as cinematographer Matthew Libatique's camera rarely leaves Lawrence's sight, much like he zeroed in Natalie Portman unraveling ballerina in “Black Swan.”
The unnamed woman pads around a large, isolated old house in the middle of the countryside, and details begin to trickle in. Bardem and Lawrence's characters are, indeed, a couple. Bardem's character is a celebrated poet who's struggling with writer's block. The fixer-upper they inhabit is Lawrence's ongoing project, as much a metaphor for the precarious state of the couple's lack of intimacy as the film as a whole is a metaphor for the inner demons that the creative process unleashes.
But “mother!” is far from a minimalist two-hander. It's quite the opposite, though that doesn't become apparent right away. A knock on the door disrupts the couple's domestic travails. An older man who says he's a doctor (Ed Harris) wanders in under the impression he's arrived at a bed and breakfast.
That subtle tug of war that couples who disagree on something often engage in is on ample display, as Lawrence's bewildered homemaker would rather see this stranger leave, whereas Bardem regards the unexpected arrival as a potential opportunity to recharge his creative juices.
Then the doctor's wife (a sensational Michelle Pfeiffer) barges in. Nosy and inappropiate where her husband is more reserved, the older woman sizes up the couple's relationship woes within minutes. She's the meddling aunt or cousin we've all had to deal with at one point or another in our lives, and Pfeiffer tears into the role with cheeky abandon.
If it seems I'm giving away too much, dear reader, trust me when I say I'm merely scratching the surface. Suffice it to say Harris and Pfeiffer's house guests are not the only ones who come knocking, leading to startling moments that feel like contemporary evocations of passages from the Old Testament. In many ways, “mother!” plays like the flip side of the coin to “The Fountain,” Aronofsky's gonzo and, to this critic, insufferable mishmash of science fiction and historical fantasy. But the self-indulgent flourishes play out with a lot more discipline in his most recent work.
As Lawrence's character sees her grip on the situation continue to loosen, Aronofsky steadily tightens the screws on the audience. I could say “mother!” goes off the rails in anarchic fashion, but through it all, the director runs a tight ship. Every camera move and audio cue works to lure you into Lawrence's angst, until you experience her sense of helplessness as if it were your own. It's not often I point out a film's sound mix as an MVP, but such is the case here. “Mother!” would be far less effective without those creaking wooden floorboards and sighing doors.
At two hours, “mother!” serves up a dose of rococo excess that could have been a tad more reined in. It's a stubborn goat of a movie that you nevertheless come to appreciate, even as it makes you throw up your hands in exasperation. You want to clap Aronofsky in the back for a job well done while also worrying whether he is even getting any sleep at night.
One may argue “mother!” ends up being too much of a good thing, but in this case, too much is, for the most part, just the right amount. Such a jolt of creativity is hard to come by, especially for a studio release. The blinders, or in this case the curtains, are off in this house of horrors, so check your preconceptions at the door, and let the arguments begin.