'mother!': Film Review | Venice 2017

A 'Rosemary's Baby' for these times.

Darren Aronofsky's latest stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a married couple whose lives start unraveling when unexpected guests arrive at their home.

Writer-director Darren Aronofsky wants to have his commercial cake and chomp down on some vexing personal issues, too, in mother!, a very Rosemary’s Baby-like intimate horror tale that definitely grabs your attention and eventually soars well over the top to make the bold concluding statement that, for some creators, art is more important than life. How the film’s compelling star Jennifer Lawrence may feel about this sentiment is another matter, but this is a tale that, like any number of fanciful genre outings, both pulls you in with its intriguing central dramatic situation and pushes you out with some mightily far-fetched plot contrivances. Aesthetically resembling Black Swan more than any of the director’s other previous work, but with touches of Requiem for a Dream, this Paramount release could score solidly with the public on the basis of the genre elements and the star’s drawing power. It opens Sept. 15 after festival bows in Venice and Toronto.

On more than one occasion in his work, Francois Truffaut posed the question, “Are films more important than life?” He never really answered it, but Aronofsky looks to be made of sterner, grimmer stuff, embedding his intellectual inquiries in dramatic contexts that lend themselves to sensationalism shot through with abundant creative displays of ego.

Here, a big isolated country house, occupied by a childless couple, establishes the physical and psychological setting for a tale predicated on the presumption that these are two people who want to live apart from the tumult of civilization. Via opening images of a charred house and of the film’s star burning up and melting, Aronofsky announces right off the bat that something nasty this way comes.

Such an isolated living arrangement can be a blessing for a couple who’s getting along, but no matter how much love they profess for each other, this relationship is fraught; “mother,” as Lawrence’s character is called, is content rehabilitating their gorgeous octagonal Victorian house in the middle of a beautiful field, while Him (Javier Bardem), a celebrated poet, is suffering a prolonged stretch of creative constipation (no character in the film is blessed with a name, although perhaps Him, among all the characters, is privileged to have his name capitalized since he clearly considers himself God among mortals). Matthew Libatique’s mood-unsettling hand-held camerawork considerably dials up the disquieting vibe even before much of anything has happened; half the compositions are close-ups, and there may not be a single still shot in the entire picture.

By the time the duo’s solitude is interrupted by the arrival of strangers, you feel that for Him, the intrusion is a relief. Turning up unannounced at the front door is "man" (Ed Harris), who, with his spasmodic coughing fits and pallor of ill health, comes off like an old-fashioned consumptive. But he’s a massive fan of Him and is followed shortly by man’s wife, named "woman" (Michelle Pfeiffer), a brittle, presumptuous, chain-smoking alcoholic with an instantly disdainful attitude toward mother. Things begin as nasty and only decline from there. Him embraces them both and invites them to stay as long as they want and when his wife reproaches him for bringing strangers under their roof, the frequently ungrammatical Him merely responds that, “I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Things go from awful to worse with the arrival of the unwelcome guests’ two brawling sons (thespian brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) and then with weird breakage and bloody leaks that suggest nothing short of a haunted house. Finally, halfway through the film, Him apologizes to his wife and kicks out the loathsome guests.

For a moment, all is well. But the seeds of evil planted in the first hour begin to bear strange fruit in ways you know cannot end well. Whereas Rosemary’s Baby pivoted on just a small conspiracy surrounding the pregnant woman, in mother! it’s as if the entire world has ganged up on its victim, who in no way can imagine why she’s being besieged.

The film’s demented final stretch is a madhouse bacchanal, a circus-like inferno which seems welcomed by Him and simply horrifies mother. This quasi-hallucinatory, disco inferno-ish climax is multilayered and ambiguous enough to accommodate multiple interpretations; it’s a mother’s worst nightmare, a vision of the contemporary world coming apart while the oblivious masses treat it as the ultimate party, a view of primitive hedonism trumping educated civilization, the destructive mob prevailing over the constructive individual, all perhaps an intuitive sign of the times as envisioned by Aronofsky.

But beyond the climactic free-for-all lunacy, this seems above all a portrait of an artist who has untethered himself from any and all moral responsibility, one so consumed by his own ego and sense of creative importance that he’s come to believe that nothing and no one remotely competes with the importance of his work. Through the ages there have been creators like this, to be sure, some of whom have admitted to it and articulated it, but few who have directly expressed it like this in an ostensibly commercial context for mass consumption.

To be sure, readings of the film will vary; some critics will try to decipher its writer-director’s attitude, while the public will mostly respond to the ghoulish twists and kicks, of which there are plenty. From a dramatic point of view, there are several gaping holes, notably the unexplained disappearances of certain characters, and cheap dramaturgical conveniences, such as the absence of outside-world lifelines like phones and cars and the willingness of mother to go along with what’s happening for far too long. But these are par-for-the course issues in such fare.

There’s certainly no faulting the actors, who, with the exception of the excellent and always audience-engaging Lawrence, all trigger a significant measure of creepiness. Bardem is dominant and, when necessary, warm and winning enough to just about convince you that Him’s wife would stick around despite all the warning signs. Harris and Pfeiffer up the ante with very keen turns as the couple that show up with no intention of leaving.

Along with Libatique’s in-the-trenches cinematography, top contributions are made by production designer Philip Messina with his wonderfully construed country mansion and visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker, whose work evokes several levels of hell.

Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Protozoa Pictures
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Stephen McHattie, Kristen Wiig
Director-screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
Producers: Scott Franklin, Ari Handel
Executive producers: Jeff Waxman, Josh Stern, Mark Heyman
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Andrew Weisblum
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Schrecker
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham
Venue: Venice Film Festival

Rated R, 108 minutes