Mother! will doubtless be called a Marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I think it’s more like vegan egg: you have a vague idea what it’s meant to be, but it’s just not quite palatable.
Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is nothing if not divisive, with critics rating it highly while the paying public preferring – among other pleasantries – “Utter bullshit masquerading as art, allegory or whatever excuse some deluded critics are calling it”1. Just three days after release, newspaper coverage has been pretty quick to backtrack in light of more opt-out than buy-in from viewers.
In its favour, Mother! has Aronofsky’s form for psychological thrills (including early parallels with Black Swan), plus Javier Bardem just being brilliantly Bardem. The story is also initially very compelling, delivering a compelling, claustrophobic and fairly creepy first half.
Things start in horror mode, with a remote house that’s clearly far too big for the two people who live there alone. The couple comprises a much younger and mostly under-clothed wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a taciturn, tormented writer (looming Bardem). They seem to be married, but are disturbingly distant with each other, while Lawrence – instead of asking her husband why he’s such an egotistical, moody sod – nips off to the bathroom at regular intervals to partake of a mystery medicine. While she’s in there, she communes with what may or may not be a demonically possessed house. Then a stranger arrives and, despite being – obviously – a stranger, is invited to spend the night.
So far, so familiar – and for that reason, what follows is a complete curve ball. I mean, so far off the scale that I now have a new frame of reference for judging bizarre films: “Weird? Like, on a scale of 1 to Mother!, how weird does it get?”
The film’s first half, with its tight, Gonzo filming and jump scares keeps Lawrence’s claustrophobia and sense of unease all too believable. At several points you just want to grab her, put some clothes on her and take her far, far into the hills. Something’s clearly not right in the house, but what exactly isn’t quite tangible – even when the stranger (Ed Harris) and his randy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up and start channelling the spirit of Rosemary’s Baby.
The second hour takes intangible unease and runs with it. In fact, it runs so far and fast that it leaves its audience for dust. There’s insinuation and suggestion and allegory and – oh boy, is there symbolism. There’s probably a couple of doctorates in there, too, for anyone with the patience to sift it all out but – and this seems a rare thing to say about a Hollywood, A-list movie – there’s just too much to sink your teeth into.
Mother! drips with meaning: sometimes biblical, sometimes ecological, and other times about the nature of fame, celebrity and the essence and equality of creativity. The final furlong is nothing short of spectacle in the apocalyptic vein, with a nods at Kafkaesque absurdism to boot. The plot isn’t quite cohesive enough to contain the sum of its parts, leaving us ultimately with a slide show of violence, comedic gore and confusion.