8/10 Writer/director Darren Aronofsky has made a horror movie about inconsiderate house guests, and it is one of the most gripping, audacious things I have seen in my entire life.
A woman, known in the script only as mother (Jennifer Lawrence), lives in an idyllic, isolated mansion with her husband (Javier Bardem). The mother built their house herself and spends her days perfecting it while her other half, a famous poet, stares at his desk in an eons-long bout of writer’s block. One day, a stranger (Ed Harris) comes to the door saying he thought they were a bed and breakfast, and against mother’s wishes, the poet invites him to stay the night. The next morning, his fiendish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) unexpectedly arrives as well. The duo becomes an ocean of unruly house guests as they surreally act out the Bible.
In its most basic elements, mother! is a master class in building and toying with tension. The camera is hyper-focused on the mother character, with barely a shot that she isn’t in or isn’t explicitly from her point of view. Despite her almost constant presence on screen, the camera is so close to her that it’s rare to see above her hairline or below her collarbone — and the wide shots that show her feet are outright jarring.
As complex and abstract as mother! is, most of its horror comes from being trapped in her limited perspective. Most of the first half of the movie happens without her knowledge or at the very edge of her perception, the story told vaguely through the litter the other characters leave behind. Aronofsky expertly builds dread alongside her increasing bewilderment. It’s intense, claustrophobic and unnerving.
As for its meta-narrative, the film disturbs with its vague and delightfully bizarre biblical reenactment. The goal at first is to put the basic stories through a realistic lens — Adam and Eve break an irreplaceable jewel instead of eating magical fruit at the behest of a talking snake, Cain kills Abel over being left out of his father’s will, and so on — but that breaks down as mother! moves out of Genesis and starts spending less time with its biblical stand-ins. The film weakens and starts running into some predictability issues as it leaves realistic framing devices behind.
There’s reason to question why this magnificent thing exists. For Aronofsky, an atheist, this is his follow-up to 2014’s Noah, which held the prophet accountable for letting so many people die and had him spend half the film plotting to kill his grandchildren as soon as they were born. The film was cautiously approved by most of the religious community — it was nowhere near as mean-spirited as Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which came out that December.
Mother! skips the flooding story, but has some remarkable similarities to Noah, the most interesting being its holistic take on religion despite a firmly Christian narrative. It has distinctly pagan elements, with nature being personified as a separate, equal character to God, as well as elements that seem to come from Eastern religions. Also, despite clearly having some thoughts on Christianity, it’s not entirely clear what those thoughts are. Literally eating the messiah seems a little weird, you say? Not a new observation.
Critics are favoring mother! in general but with many individual reviews flying to polar extremes, and that seems about right. This is not an accessible film. It demands energy and a little leeway, and even if a viewer gives it that, it doesn’t offer a traditionally satisfying experience.
Obviously, mother! isn’t the only horror movie in theaters — all indications are it’s going to be crushed by the second weekend of It. Since my hot take last week, a friend said she enjoyed It the same way she enjoyed a bad sitcom, and that makes a lot of sense. The spooky clown jumps out and yells “boo” but doesn’t go beyond haunted house antics, he won’t do anything that might truly upset the audience. It’s tame, but that’s what most people want from horror movies these days — a few sudden loud noises to get the heart pumping, but nothing challenging.
Mother! is not that movie. Mother! is challenging and disturbing and unnerving in a way that keeps you looking over your shoulder after you leave the theater. It’s a superior work of art up there with Aronofsky’s best work and I can’t wait to see it again, but it’s absolutely not for everyone.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and a syndicated columnist with the Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.