Darren Aronofsky is unquestionably a virtuoso filmmaker, as even his oddest projects demonstrate. (“Noah” might have been one of the wackiest biblical movies ever made, but it had plenty of style.) Now, like Stanley Kubrick in “The Shining,” he turns his attention to the horror genre, and “mother!,” the result, is certainly striking. But whether it will strike you as a profound example of self-reflection, or a pretentious rumination on the cost of artistic creativity, or an incoherent jumble of genre tropes—or a messy combination of them all—is another matter.
Like Kubrick’s film, “mother!” is set in an isolated locale—a labyrinthine wooden mansion located deep in a forest. Living there are an unnamed poet (Javier Bardem), a brooding fellow hobbled by writer’s block, and his much younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he calls “mother.” She’s a mousy type who’s refurbishing the creaky old place—which was apparently destroyed earlier in a fire in which the poet’s first wife died (or maybe not: like Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” this movie tinkers with time)—by herself. (From this point, be aware that spoilers are coming, so cease reading if you want to avoid them.)
The couple’s privacy—sometimes loving, sometimes fraught—is invaded by a strange man (Ed Harris) claiming to be an orthopedic surgeon who was told–or so he says–the house was a B&B. To his wife’s surprise, the poet invites the fellow to stay the night, though he’s wracked with a terrible cough exacerbated by his smoking. Worse, the next day his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up and moves in as well. She’s a nosy type who belittles poor “mother,” asking impertinent questions and making borderline rude observations. Why no kids, for example? (Presumably the weird yellow liquid that mother periodically drinks is intended to help along those lines.)
The situation deteriorates further when the woman breaks a weird glass crystal the poet found in the debris of the house fire that that he reveres as the source of his inspiration (though at the moment it doesn’t seem to be working). Even that accident—if it was an accident—is topped, as the couple’s two grown sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) appear and get into a violent altercation in which one of them dies. Soon the house is filled with mourners at the poet’s invitation; he finds their presence somehow helpful to his work, though it’s difficult to see how. His wife, on the other hand, is horrified by their destructive behavior and orders everybody out.
That’s only the first half of the film. In the second, mother is pregnant and her husband is inspired by upcoming fatherhood. But when he publishes his poem, their beatific solitude is again shattered, first by a throng of press and then by an army of fans. The poet basks in all the attention and refuses to send the interlopers away, even as they invade the house. His bitchy publisher (Kristen Wiig) appears, referring to mother as her author’s muse even as mother’s delivery time comes. The baby is born as the crowd turns into a ravenous horde, dismantling the house in a search for souvenirs, and the poet insists on showing the child to them despite his wife’s insistence he not even touch the infant. The intruders have by this time morphed into a religious cult, led by a sinister minister (Stephen McHattie), worshiping the poet’s glorious verse (which, thankfully, we never get an example of), and their treatment of the baby becomes a grotesque parody of a Eucharistic celebration. Poor mother reacts with a fury, taking an ax to the place’s archaic heating system and setting the house ablaze. In the aftermath the poet finds her charred body and—not so surprisingly—that crystal he had prized, or maybe its replacement. The cycle has been completed, and perhaps repeats endlessly.
Obviously this is intended as some sort of parable about the pain and loss that are necessary components of the process of artistic creation, and the sacrifices that those close to an artist inevitably suffer. Aronofsky uses “The Shining” as his main inspiration, though one can easily see “Rosemary’s Baby” and even Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” as part of the mix as well. With a house that groans, burps and even drips blood, agitated yet claustrophobic camerawork (by Matthew Libatique) and frenzied crowd sequences, the picture creates an unsettling vibe, but it’s rarely frightening in any conventional sense. Lawrence acts against type, going soft and scared rather than strong and secure, while Bardem vacillates effectively enough between charming and boorish; of the intrusive couple, Harris is fine, but it’s Pfeiffer who dominates with her portrait of a poisonous shrew.
One has to hope that Aronofsky intends “mother!” as a satire of his own artistic pretensions and the adulation of him as an auteur from some members of the press and public. On the other hand, if it’s meant as any sort of serious commentary on how torturous the creative process is for him, or as an apology to those he might have bruised along the way, one will find it hard to muster any sympathy for his plight.
Nor is it easy to summon much enthusiasm for a movie that manages a few effective moments but winds up as less a genuinely creepy haunted house thriller than a silly, self-indulgent allegory about the torments that bedevil the artist as he strives to give birth to a masterpiece. Remember how, in the old Warner Brothers cartoons, when a character found himself in some apparently hopeless situation he was likely to emit one strangulated word: “Mother!”? You might find yourself moved to do the same as “mother!” careens down the home stretch.