Mother! review: a shocking, symphonically berserk feast of filth

Robbie Collin
Jennifer Lawrence in Mother! - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Dir: Darren Aronofsky; Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristin Wiig. 18 cert, 121 mins.

Advance intel on Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! has been sparse, and the few droplets the Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream director saw fit to leak before its premiere in Venice the other week didn’t clarify much. A poster showed the face of its star, Jennifer Lawrence, lying supine in profile against the silhouette of a house, hinting at shared DNA with Rosemary’s Baby.

The programme blurb promised a home-invasion thriller “about love, devotion and sacrifice”. And in his oblique director’s statement, Aronofsky references war, famine, climate change and the ongoing refugee crisis – but in a way that frames them less as inspirations than the raw materials in a kind of apocalyptic chemistry experiment. Combine the lot, shake furiously, stand well back, and Mother! comes seething out, like toxic froth. 

In fact, Aronofsky’s film is all of the above and more: a fevered allegory of humans versus nature, a grotesque, Goya-channelling creation myth mash-up, a parable of artistic obsession, and a psychological horror set inside an introvert’s worst nightmare. It absolutely isn’t for everyone – perhaps you’d already picked that up – and when I saw it in Venice, the audience curdled down the middle, half cheering and half booing, while one particularly furious critic yelled about Buñuel in Spanish.

Yet the film’s greatness is, I think, beyond doubt. As so often with Aronofsky’s work, it is a mad, transfixing, rolling thunder-crash that bowls you over in the moment, but which keeps squirming away under your skin for days. It connects with bit of your psyche you didn’t even know existed, and perhaps wish didn’t. That’s the terror and the fun of it.

Mother! plays out within the confines of a grand, wooden mansion in the centre of a circular meadow – which from above looks like an enormous navel, or nipple. It’s inhabited by two nameless characters: a young housewife (Jennifer Lawrence) and her older husband (Javier Bardem), a famous writer who’s suffering from terminal creative block.

Jennifer Lawrence promoting Mother! in Venice Credit: AFP

The house is his, and was seriously damaged in a fire at some point in the past. Now his wife is painstakingly restoring it, while also cooking and cleaning, while he sits in his study upstairs, wrestling with his work. A strangely shaped crystal sits in a metal stand by his desk: it was the one thing he was able to retrieve from the ashes, and means a lot to him, for reasons that will later become – well, "clear" might be stretching it, but gruesomely apparent at least.  

One day, there’s a knock at the door. Outside is a strange man (Ed Harris), also nameless, whom Bardem welcomes with arms flung wide. He claims he’s there because he mistook the house for a bed and breakfast, which makes Lawrence uneasy, but Bardem hopes he’ll find the company inspiring, so invites him to stay the night.

The next day, the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, suitcase in hand, and likewise makes herself at home at Bardem’s insistence. Now Lawrence grows increasingly horrified: her husband doesn’t seem to see the house as the sanctuary she’s lovingly maintained. The couple sneak into Bardem’s study and accidentally smash his precious crystal into splinters.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem

Pfeiffer nags and teases Lawrence for not yet having children while sipping boozy lemonade. In short, there’s trouble in paradise – and if I tell you that the couple’s two feuding sons, played by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson, arrive not long after that, the scriptural resonance should be clear enough. 

In his underrated Biblical epic Noah (2014), Aronofsky kept returning to a silhouetted image of Cain dashing out Abel’s brains with a rock – at one point using it to strobe through a brief history of human atrocity, from prehistory to the civil unrest of the present.

As more and more visitors descend on the house, and all hell (arguably literally) breaks loose, Mother! starts to feel a little like that montage fleshed out to feature length. If you want to get all Gnostic about it, and Aronofsky absolutely does, think of Bardem as this potted universe’s personal Demiurge: a prideful, vengeful, self-obsessed creator whose works spell nothing but bad news.

The Spanish actor is more or less custom-made for roles like this: he keeps his character’s motives creepily opaque, and that grinning gravestone face is often all you have to go on. Lawrence’s youthfulness and softness, meanwhile, are all too apparent as the camera keeps leaning in to scrutinise her face, watching her unease bloom into dread, then dread rot into panic. It’s an exceptional performance – one that burns through all of her star power like rocket fuel – and her incomprehension and distress fast become your own.

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And if you’re shaken up by Mother!, the film has worked. I didn’t share the Buñuel guy’s outrage, but he had a point: there’s an umbilical connection between Aronofsky’s film and the surrealist master’s supremely disconcerting 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, in which the guests at a dinner party find themselves mysteriously unable to leave the room.

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist – which reminded us that “nature is Satan’s church” – is also a kindred spirit, as is the Sarah Kane play Blasted, in which a series of spiralling horrors are visited on a couple in a hotel room in Leeds. 

Kane’s play was famously decried on its opening as a “feast of filth” – a description which could equally apply to this film’s later passages, which go symphonically berserk. Yet even as the visitors’ numbers swell beyond sense, their infractions are at first fairly minor: they just mount up with a water-torture steadiness that has you writhing with discomfort, and which makes the climactic meltdown, which arrives with bangs and whimpers to spare, just feel like a natural progression.

A sick joke, an urgent warning and a scream from the abyss, Mother! earns its exclamation mark three times over and more.

Best films of 2017