Is "Mother!" a spiritual journey, dramatized nightmare or sadomasochistic porn? Yes, and much more, too much to parse in a single discussion or digest in a single viewing. A film so thoroughly oppressive and bleak, so unflinchingly brutal, is to be thought about for days.
On one level, the story is a complex psychological mystery. While it is initially hard to get a grasp on, everything is in place to be read into and ultimately understood if you're willing to pay close attention. The film focuses on imagery that moves into retina-frying hallucinatory realms augmented by weird sounds from the background, creating the sense that it's all taking place on a different plane of existence. While it carries echoes of work by provocateurs including David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Lars von Trier and Luis Bunuel, there's nothing like it in terms of overall style and imagery. This is a film completely on its own.
The characters are unnamed archetypes played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, two of the most expressive performers of the era. Lawrence is the young wife and muse of a celebrated poet who has become unable to produce anything. An almost ethereal beauty, she encourages the older man, played by Bardem, pleased to serve as his handmaiden. For his part, he gazes on her fondly and calls her "my goddess" as she freshens up their aged manor and delivers his meals.
While he is often distant and self-important, their bond is hopeful. He may be able to return to writing when the right theme arrives; she may someday have her dream come true as a mother.
Their home is from the creepy-house-in-the-woods playbook. Matthew Libatique's camera creeps around the decrepit octagonal home at Lawrence's side, keeping her increasingly worried face in claustrophobic close-up. A look out the front door shows that there is no road to the place, just yellow fields surrounding it, and whatever it is that's growing on those fields represents no recognizable branch of nature.
Change raps on the door in the form of a surgeon in search of lodging. He happens to be a huge fan of the poet's celebrated early work, and the writer invites him to take one of the house's multiple empty rooms. Ed Harris pays the part with his typical screen magnetism, making him both a figure of pathos (he's dying) and disquiet (Lawrence wasn't consulted about his limitless stay-over).
Then comes the arrival of his acidic wife (Michelle Pfeiffer in haughty, overindulged form). And from there forward, each sound at the front door introduces people who don't belong and don't care about how inconvenient their arrival is to the increasingly paranoid Lawrence. Watching "Mother!" descend into a population explosion of uninvited guests and Lawrence's gratuitously gory martyrdom is like feeling the sizzle of a branding iron against your brain. It sears its way into your subconscious. Watching it I juggled terms like coven, Antichrist, demon, madness, revelation, mutilation.
What writer/director Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") is exploring are dark, profound issues regarding human nature and faith. The gradually revealed biblical overtones are as powerful as in his epic "Noah." Here again, humanity seems like one of the universe's failed experiments.
The movie pushes the limits in every scene. It shows us in stark detail unspeakable acts of violence and sexuality while dramatically justifying them only through implication. Although Aronofsky isn't just out to jolt viewers, the film might make many feel merely stunned, rather than touched by its disturbing, weird, highly abstract vision. "Mother!" is agonizingly uncompromising, yet utterly compelling.
3 out of 4 stars
Rating: R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.