The film-maker Darren Aronofsky says he wrote Mother! in five days as if in a ‘fever dream’ and, as a general rule, what happens in a fever dream should stay in the fever dream, as the content will be plainly nuts. This is plainly nuts. This is even plainly nuts with an exclamation mark. Plainly nuts! However, it’s never plainly dull, so it does have that going for it. I think.
Described as a psychological horror thriller, the set-up has a poet and his younger wife living in a magnificent, isolated house in the countryside that she is doing up. She is Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and he is Him (Javier Bardem). She is in thrall to Him, and exists only to serve Him, while he is suffering from writer’s block and is distant. She just needs to make everything perfect; just needs to create some kind of paradise — an Eden? — and he’ll soon be writing again, she imagines. Meanwhile, Him, we learn, previously lost everything in an inferno, which somehow managed to create his most prized possession, a thumping great crystal. Him may be one of those writers like Paulo Coelho, who say much that sounds profound yet means nothing when it comes down to it, and many will say similar about this film.
We are certainly discomfited from the off. Right at the beginning, we see Mother go up in flames, her skin bubbling and charring. But is that from the past or is it the future? Here, in the house, she drinks a strange yellow tincture and can feel a heart palpating from within the wall. (I’d have got on to the estate agents about that.) Our discomfort is increased when they receive a visitor, a doctor with a bad cough who says that he thought this was a B&B. He is Man (Ed Harris), who is later joined by his wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer, doing her bitch shtick), but not by their Dog, if they have one. Or Cat. Or pet Fish. It’s clear that they have no intention of leaving and observe none of the usual house-guest rules. They make a mess. They smoke inside. They break beloved objects. Then their two sons turn up (played by Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), who partake in some kind of Cain and Abel-style fracas. Mother is appalled by the intrusion while Him seems to welcome it. And Us? We are just puzzled. What’s that in the toilet? A bloody heart? What’s that furnace in the basement? What is it with Man and his cough? Mother discovers that she’s pregnant, which allows for some downtime in the second act, but after that it escalates into full-blown, bloody carnage. It does not hold back.
Aronofsky, who has always been a singular film-maker (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Noah, The Fountain, Black Swan), keeps the camera either over Lawrence’s shoulder or on her face. It’s told entirely from her point of view but, even so, you wouldn’t want to be a woman in an Aronofsky film, frankly, as you will almost certainly be terrorised. J-Law is firmly committed to the lunacy and is compelling, even though she’s not given much to do beyond rushing about shouting ‘Stop!’ and ‘Please leave!’ and ‘Don’t sit on that sink, it’s not braced yet!’ Also, it’s a psychological horror thriller that isn’t properly psychological — we understand nothing about anyone — isn’t properly horrifying (unpleasant, yes; horrifying, no) and isn’t properly a thriller, as it’s too irrational, and also rather repetitive. Who are these people in my house and why won’t they go? Essentially, it’s that, over and over.
As to what it might have to say, you’ll drive your own self mad trying to figure it out. Is it allegorical? Is Mother, in fact, Mother Earth, being defiled by humanity? Is it about our extinction and a possible rebirth? If Him is God, and Mother is God’s wife, what are We meant to take from that? Or is it just Aronofsky taking the piss and putting us and his cast through the mill simply for the sheer hell of it? It could be all of the above or none of them. I have no idea, given it’s plainly nuts(!). But, that said, it is never plainly dull. I was not Bored.