A critic could spend a lot of time and verbiage just trying to categorize movie writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”
Is it a horror movie? A marital drama? A psychological thriller about jealousy and fame? A symbolic tale of humans wrecking the environment? A parable of the creative process and the stresses of pleasing the crowd vs. satisfying one’s muse? A biblical allegory, pairing an inattentive God with a submissive Mother Nature?
Your guess is as good as mine in this frenetically rendered, visually arresting, full-tilt crazy movie. I lean toward the biblical fable, but am open to other interpretations.
My fear, though, is that many moviegoers, looking for a good time and drawn to the picture of America’s sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence in the posters, will not be open to Aronofsky’s oblique storytelling and audaciously confrontational images. This is not your Friday night, popcorn-and-Red Vines kind of movie, but easily the most divisive film a major Hollywood studio has released in decades.
After opening images of fiery chaos and restoration, Aronofsky focuses in on Lawrence’s character — the credits refer to her as “mother” — who wakes up and misses Him (Javier Bardem) in their bed. (Bardem’s character is the only one afforded a capital letter in the credits; no one else is given more than a vague identification.) The mother has moved into Him’s house and is laboring to renovate it into “a paradise,” leaving Him alone to write poetry.
One night, a stranger (Ed Harris) comes to the door. He was told the house was a bed-and-breakfast, and Him welcomes the stranger, an orthopedic surgeon with a hacking cough, to stay the night. She is uneasy about uninvited guests and warns the stranger not to smoke in the house. It’s the first of many transgressions of her rules.
As the movie continues its slow burn, the stranger is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who talks about their children and asks their hosts whether they ever plan to have kids. The wife wants to peek into Him’s study, which the mother says is forbidden. When she goes in anyway, all manner of bad things follow.
First, there’s a fight involving the stranger’s adult sons (played by real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). Then more people come, filling the house and destroying Mother’s meticulous repairs — even flooding the kitchen. And so on.
Aronofsky (who last delved into the Bible with “Noah”) could be setting up an elaborate and stormy telling of the Old and New Testaments. It would be easy to read Bardem as a capricious God, doting on the mob who adores him and hangs on his every word, and Lawrence as the ravaged and neglected Mother Earth. But assigning every character or action a Biblical parallel — Harris and Pfeiffer as Adam and Eve, the Gleesons as Cain and Abel, etc. — seems reductive to Aronofsky’s wider purpose.
What that purpose is, besides freaking out audiences and undoubtedly a few studio bosses, is harder to decipher. Whatever his ultimate aim, Aronofsky, as he has done in “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream,” conjures images that are difficult to shake and draws out wrenching performances — especially from Lawrence, veering from demure to ferocious as she contends with an increasingly dangerous mob, who worship Him while desecrating his home.
Aronofsky offers up “mother!” as a morality tale, to be taken in any direction the viewer cares to go. Alas, the filmmaker may find that his jarring, in-your-face images are so disquieting that viewers may not care to go anywhere with or near them.
* * * 1/2
A loving couple find their dream home beset by outsiders in Darren Aronofsky’s challenging, in-your-face fable.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 15.
Rating • R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.
Running time • 121 minutes.