Aronofsky delivers one 'mother!' of a laborious agitated shock-fest

By Liam Lacey

“I apologize,” Darren Aronofsky told the audience at TIFF’s North American premiere for mother! this week, “for what I’m about to do to you.”’

Reactions to mother! (the name suggests an abbreviated obscenity) have been so rapt in praise or so spluttering with annoyance, it all sounds too good, or too bad, to be true. Or, as one viewer posted on Facebook: “I just saw Darren Aranofsky’s mother! WTF?”

Crazy follows J-Law around in mother!

Crazy follows J-Law around in mother!

Some critics have leapt to the unverifiable conclusion that the film is personal statement,  the filmmaker’s “auto-critique” (David Edestein, Vulture) or “an artist’s cry from his own corrupt heart,” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). 

On the contrary,  Aronofksy has already dumped a big spoiler alert, by stating that the film is archetypal,  an allegory about Mother Earth and the crimes humans have committed against her.

In practice, mother! is, for 90 minutes or so, an entertaining and intimate horror movie, which is a throwback and commentary on two classics of the genre, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Set in a massive Victorian house in the middle of a tree-encircled field, it’s the story of an unnamed childless couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem). He, like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, is an author suffering from writer’s block. From Rosemary’s Baby, we have a worrisome older couple, a cult of strangers, smears of paint, a sealed wall, herbal concoctions, and, most importantly, an unusual pregnancy.

There’s an element of weird absurdist play here too, an Edward Albee comedy of bad manners.  Lawrence’s character, an obsessive house-keeper determined to restore the old house to make a “paradise” for her genius husband, is constantly thwarted by a growing stream of outrageous guests.

First among these is a doctor with a terminal cough (Ed Harris) who shows up one night claiming he thought the house was a bed-and-breakfast. To the wife’s shock, her husband invites the doctor, who turns out to be a big fan, to stay the night.

The next morning, the doctor’s slinky insinuating spouse (Michelle Pfeiffer), shows up, mixes morning cocktails and follows J-Law’s character around the house, dumps wet laundry on the floor, and makes inappropriate comments about her hosts’ sex lives. Then, just to jog your Biblical memory, the couple’s two violent adult sons (brothers Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson) show up and engage in a fratricidal struggle in the dining room. Talk about invading someone’s space.

All this is relentlessly lively.  New characters come bursting through the doors like gurneys in an ER room. Matthew Libatique’s handheld camera never stops moving, often catching Lawrence’s Madonna-like visage in wavery close-ups (her default expression throughout is wide-eyed and pursed-lipped, like Ivanka Trump listening to one of her father’s embarrassing rants). But once the guests have been driven out, she discovers she’s pregnant. A beatific smile cracks her face as the movie’s allegorical gears begin to grind. Her husband begins writing again, the baby bump swells, sunshine fills the gothic home and all is well.

The respite is brief.  After the new book is published, the author’s fans begin arriving, en masse, to pay homage to him.  Strangers wander through the house by the busload. It starts innocuously enough — from stealing knick-knacks to playing loud disco music. Then, in its last third, the movie jumps the tracks from odd and mysterious to abrasively alienating. The crowd turns into a sort of flash mob depicting Horrible Behaviour Through the Ages: Angry protests, combat troops exchanging fire through the hallways, and death squads executing victims on the living room floor, not to mention those careless people who won’t stop sitting on the edge of the vintage sink.  We needn’t get to the part about what happens to the baby boy. 

There’s no faulting the actors (Lawrence, even in a largely reactive role, is her own intense force field and Bardem exudes a threatening charm). And full marks for the degree of difficulty attempted here, mixing a marriage drama, a critique of the artist-muse relationship a religious allegory, a horror movie and an absurdist play rolled into one. 

But the last act’s non-stop hysteria grows wearisome and Aranofsky’s big ideas feel sophomoric The Judeo-Christian tradition's sado-masochistic and misogynist streak was a bold target for Luis Bunuel, but not so much today. I only wish I found mother! exhilarating or shocking rather than laboriously agitated and kind of cheesy.

mother!: Written and directed by Darren Aranofsky. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer.  mother! can be seen at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, Market Square, Cineplex Varsity, Cineplex Yonge Eglinton, Cineplex Yorkdale and Empress Walk.