MOTHER!

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Stephen McHattie, Kristen Wiig.

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This is the mother of all wtf did I just watch movies for 2017. This paranoid psychological horror thriller is one of the more complicated and divisive films to hit our screens and will polarise audiences. That is probably to be expected from filmmaker Darren Aronofsky though, whose films are deliberately provocative and have explored themes of religion, personal torment, love and dysfunctional relationships, the creative process and the struggles of an artist. Mother! is no exception. Aronofsky’s previous films include Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, the mind bending The Fountain, The Wrestler (arguably his best film), and the unorthodox take on the Biblical tale of Noah. After the misfire of the old testament drama of Noah, Aronofsky here gives us a full-on glimpse of a Biblical apocalypse that is unsettling.

An unusual combination of haunted house horror and home invasion drama, Mother! is fertile territory for an imaginative filmmaker. The film is an allegory, and full of disturbing symbolism. None of the characters we meet here are given names, which further adds to the air of mystery and unease.

The setting is a large house, isolated in a remote location, surrounded by woods and fields, which had burnt to the ground. In the house, we meet a newly-wed couple who seem to be living an idyllic and quite live. The woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is working at rebuilding the house and restoring it to its former old-world charm. She is married to an older man, simply known as “him” (played by Oscar winner Javier Bardem, from No Country For Old Men, etc), a writer. He is trying to write his masterpiece but – cliche alert – is suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. He largely ignores her desires. Until the arrival of a couple of uninvited guests rock up and bring an air of smouldering tension to the house.

The first stranger (Ed Harris) is a chain smoking doctor who seems to be dying of cancer. Bardem invites the doctor to spend the night, a decision that disturbs the woman. His vaguely sinister presence upends Lawrence’s idyllic and solitary existence. The next day, the doctor’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives unannounced, and is also invited to stay. The doctor’s wife is bossy and overly inquisitive and she unnerves Lawrence. Then their two sons (played by real life brother Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) arrive and have a vicious punch-up in the living room. To continue the Biblical analogies, these murderous siblings bring a Cain and Abel vibe to the material.

The unsettling presence of these strangers though inspires Bardem’s character to write his masterpiece, and before long hordes of adoring fans and acolytes descend upon the house, and madness follows as they tear the house apart in search of mementoes of his genius. There is an obvious Biblical metaphor here too, as Bardem’s character is presented almost as a Christ-like figure, although he is more of a false messiah who seems to have made a deal with the devil for fame.

The early part of the film with Harris and Pfeiffer as the unwanted guests bring a vaguely sinister atmosphere and misogynistic tone to the material, but the second half is more problematic and less conventional. Mother! is a chamber piece that grows progressively weirder and more impenetrable as it moves towards a finale that is completely bonkers as Aronofsky throws virtually everything at the screen. A wild, feverish nightmare quickly takes hold that will remind audiences of the similarly disturbing climax to his Requiem For A Dream.

Aronofsky himself has admitted that the genesis for Mother! emerged from a “primordial soup of angst and hopelessness” he felt while thinking about the problems threatening the world at the moment – climate change, over population, pollution, distrust of celebrities and politicians, the threat of war. He eschews a conventional linear narrative structure here

However, this is still technically proficient film, with great production design from Philip Messina (The Hunger Games trilogy, etc) that makes the house a living entity and almost another character in the film. Regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique has shot much of the film in extreme close-up and focusses on Lawrence’s expressive face, which gives the material a claustrophobic feel, and somehow increases the uneasy mood that permeates the film. The film’s sound design is also eerie and adds to the sensory overload we experience.

Lawrence, one of the highest paid actresses in the world, throws herself into her demanding role, as her is put through an emotional and physical wringer as she struggles to comprehend what is happening around her. This is only her second horror film, five years after The House At The End Of The Street, and like that film this one seems to be struggling to connect with her usual fan base. Bardem has a cold and smug quality here as the egocentric, narcissistic writer and comes across as slightly creepy. And who knows what subtext there is to this relationship between an older, controlling and driven man and his younger wife, given that Aronofsky and Lawrence are now apparently a couple in real life.

Harris brings a quiet air of menace to his role, while Pfeiffer brings an icy demeanour to her performance as his bossy and intimidating wife. Look out for Kristen Wiig in a small role.

Mother! can best be appreciated as a paranoid riff on the superior Rosemary’s Baby, although it is nowhere near as effective and chilling as Roman Polanksi’s 1968 thriller with its devil worship plot. That film was also largely overshadowed by the tragedy that had recently shaped his life, and he poured much of his own troubled psyche into the story.
★★

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