Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is Rosemary’s Baby amped up into a fugue state of self-indulgent solipsism. It’s also likely to be the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the season. Which, come to think of it, is probably just how the provocateur behind Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream wants it. He’s an artist. And he really wants you to know that he’s been thinking a lot about what that means. Unfortunately, his gaze is so deep into his own navel that it’s just exasperating.
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a newlywed couple living in a big, semi-renovated house in the middle of nowhere. Lawrence’s unnamed character dotes on her husband – a brooding, self-involved poet gripped with writer’s block. While he flails for inspiration, she offers meek, sunshine-y smiles and unflagging encouragement while working on turning the down-on-its-heels home into something out of a Restoration Hardware catalog. His moods aren’t easy to live with, but Lawrence’s character is patient and supportive to the point of being a domesticated doormat.
Speaking of doormats, theirs is about to get a workout. Late one night, there’s an unexpected knock at the door. It’s Ed Harris, a surgeon with the kind of slightly menacing, overly familiar air that spells imminent trouble. He says he thought the place was a B&B. But rather than turn him away, Bardem invites him in to spend the night. Like Lawrence, we think: Wait, what?! But like Lawrence, we also go with it because, at this point, we’re curious where this might be headed. And he immediately makes himself at home. Too at home. The next morning, Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. She’s a boozy, sexy, pushy pill who makes her husband look like Emily Post. He opens their house up to her like a long lost relative too. And Pfeiffer starts right in picking at Lawrence’s insecurities with not-so-subtle digs about her and her husband’s lack of children and seemingly tepid sex life. Lawrence registers these violations of privacy and personal space sheepishly. She’s so in awe of her husband’s genius that she just goes along with it all. Soon, more uninvited guests appear until Lawrence, who’s already suffering from some medicated hallucinations, slowly starts to unravel. Then things really get weird.
Anyone who’s seen Roman Polanski’s 1968 chiller masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby will immediately get a whiff of déjà-vu watching mother! unfold. Lawrence is the retiring happy homemaker played by Mia Farrow, Bardem is the ambitious and struggling artist who’d do who-knows-what for success played by John Cassavetes. And Harris and Pfeiffer are the nosy, steamrolling older neighbors played by Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon. It isn’t too hard to see where this is all headed for poor J-Law. Even the big, spooky house feels as claustrophobic and psychotically alive as the apartment in Polanski’s Repulsion. But mother! is more (and less) than an exercise in hand-me-down pastiche. Troweled onto Aronofsky’s story (which he also wrote) is layer upon layer of metaphorical subtext about the narcissistic cruelty of self-involved artists and the sacrifices of living with them. One suspects that Aronofsky is working through some issues about the pitfalls of genius. If only they were harnessed into something more subtle and less over the top. The title isn’t the only thing about the film that has an exclamation point; every scene comes with one – and also seems to be in blaring, buzzing neon. The movie doesn’t know when to stop.
Lawrence is clearly the star of the movie. She’s in every scene and it’s her unraveling, gaslit point of view we’re supposed to identify with. But there’s something about the role that doesn’t quite fit her. She’s always been an actress of strength, independence, and agency. But here, she’s a victim in hysterical, high-dudgeon mode from the opening moments of the movie until its bonkers, WTF ending. It wastes the quality that usually makes her such a powerhouse screen presence. She’s not someone we want to be weak, on the defensive, and put through the psychological, torture-porn wringer.
Aronofsky is clearly swinging for the fences with mother! and there’s a lot to take in, including a third act that jackknifes into a dizzying, apocalyptic inferno of occult horror. But in the end, it’s hard not to get the impression that Aronofsky’s film has a lot more meaning for him than the audience. Some will no doubt find all of its flash and portent to be deep and provocative. Others will roll their eyes, toss up their hands, and find it to be slick, ridiculous nonsense. Those in the second camp won’t be wrong. C