Writer/director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) enjoys confusing audiences. His latest mind tease is the psychological thriller “mother!,” cqa quick synopsis of which is thus: Doting wife (Jennifer Lawrence) of a struggling, egotistical poet (Javier Bardem) unravels. But the plot is inconsequential because in the end it all results in a hodge-podge of provocative images (some sickening) that add up to little more than a big WTF yawn.
This movie is bat--it crazy — incomprehensible and indulgent on the part of Aronofsky. Most of it seems to exist in a fever dream only understood by him. It tests your movie-going mettle. Expect it to be one of the most polarizing films of the new fall film season. You’ll either like it, or loathe it. I fall in the latter category, for a couple of reasons, namely the suffocating misogyny and the miscasting of Lawrence (an Oscar-winner for “Silver Linings Playbook”). She’s 20 years younger than her screen husband, naturally. It’s frustrating to watch her in the victim role, exploited by the director, her real-life boyfriend. He favors tight, close shots of her and dresses her in a nearly see-through white nightie, looking ethereally beautiful. Characters call her derogatory names. Men leer. The nameless role is as far away from any of the strong, driven women Lawrence has portrayed in past movies. She’s powerless and that’s unsettling.
The title, “mother!,” with its lowercase “m” and exclamation point, suggests the director may view mothers as nothing more than patsies put here to serve at the pleasure of those around her. That’s exactly what Lawrence’s Mother does — cater to the needs of Him (Bardem), who is fighting a bad case of writer’s block. Mother, always barefoot, cooks, cleans up bloody tissues, unclogs toilets.
The couple live in an isolated antique Victorian in the middle of nowhere. She is so devoted to restoring the house (“I want to make a paradise”) after a devastating fire that she also can feel the beating heart of a fetus when she touches the walls. Weird, right? That’s just the start. Mysterious houseguests played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer enter the mix and set off a series of strange and awkward situations, reminiscent of Sidney Blackmer and Quincy native Ruth Gordon in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Pfeiffer is a saucy and boozy hoot, challenging Mother with intrusive questions about sex, having children and the kind of panties she favors. When the script sends them away, the movie suffers.
The world Aronofsky, a 1991 Harvard grad, creates in “mother!” is muted and grainy, comprised of beiges and grays, typical of his earlier work. He has the ability to evoke eeriness in familiar routines like cooking, painting, doing laundry, floorboards squeaking, doors creaking. The ambient noise undeniably adds a sense of terror, but he’s also dabbling in familiar themes, too, that of the mental toll art (or in the case of “The Wrestler,” performance) takes on an artist’s sanity, and the collateral damage left in the wake of newfound fame. “Mother!” is another examination of compulsive behavior — on both sides of the coin — as the script considers the cost of celebrity in its totally bonkers climax.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kristen Wiig.
(R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.)