If the only thing we wanted, or expected, a horror film to do was to get a rise out of you — to make your eyes widen and your jaw drop, to leave you in breathless chortling spasms of WTF disbelief — then Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” would have to be reckoned some sort of masterpiece. As it is, the movie, which stars Jennifer Lawrence as a woman who slips down a rabbit hole of paranoid could-this-be-happening? reality (she flushes a beating heart down the toilet; blood in the shape of a vagina melts through the floorboards; and oh, the wackjobs who keep showing up!), is far from a masterpiece. It’s more like a dazzlingly skillful machine of virtual reality designed to get nothing but a rise out of you. It’s a baroque nightmare that’s about nothing but itself.
Yet for an increasingly large swath of the moviegoing audience, that may be enough. “mother!” is often entertaining in a knowingly over-the-top, look-ma-no-hands! way. To ask for a film like this one to be more than it is — to ask for it to connect to experience in a meaningful way — may, at this point, seem quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant. Considering the number of cruddy recycled horror movies made by hacks that score at the box office, the film is almost destined to be a success, maybe even a “sensation,” because Aronofsky is no hack — he’s a dark wizard of the cinematic arts. Yet his two greatest films, “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) and “The Wrestler” (2008), are both steeped in the human dimension, whereas “mother!” is a piece of ersatz humanity. Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to “mother!” and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.
In the remote green countryside, Lawrence plays the young second wife of a middle-aged celebrity author of feel-good poetry, played by Javier Bardem. (The characters are identified in the credits only as “mother” and “him.”) She’s renovating the couple’s exquisitely tasteful and spacious rustic Victorian mansion. The place sits in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but grass and trees and wind, like a wooden octagonal country castle: no road, no driveway, no cell-phone service. It’s a house with great bones, as they say, but the place was burned in a fire, which destroyed everything Bardem had, including his first wife. In the ashes, he found a burnished crystal, which gave him the faith to go on (it’s mounted in his study), and Lawrence wants to feel the faith too. She isn’t just fixing up a house; she’s restoring their lives.
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That, however, is going to be a challenge, since Bardem, who has been a blocked writer ever since the fire, skulks around with knitted brows and a bitter scowl, treating Lawrence less as someone he loves than as the ball-and-chain he’s already sick of. The oddest thing about “mother!” is that it pretends to be a “psychological drama,” but the Tensions Simmering Below The Surface are all on the surface. Aronofsky, who wrote as well as directed the film, seems to be drawing characters and situations out of a ham-handed tradition of overly blatant B-movie horror. But can intentional obviousness be an artful style? There’s no subtext to “mother!” — just the film’s hyper-synthetic, flattened-out pop reality.
Early on, there’s a mysterious knock on the door. It’s a skeevy and deranged-looking Ed Harris, who has somehow found his way to the house, late at night, and acts oddly aggressive and familiar (to Bardem: “Your wife? I thought it was your daughter!”). The even stranger thing is that within minutes, he and Bardem are sitting around like old drinking buddies, as if they were in the middle of a conspiracy. When Bardem invites him to stay over, Lawrence quite understandably says, “He’s a stranger. We’re not going to let him sleep in our house.” That Bardem treats a stranger like family and his wife like crap doesn’t really make sense, but the film asks us to accept that we’re in the “Twilight Zone” version of a “Green Acres” universe, where everything Lawrence thinks, says, and does is wrong, and she’s going to suffer for it, all because…well, there is no because. All because that’s the movie’s sick-joke rules.
“mother!” is a nightmare played as a hallucination played as a theater-of-the-absurd video game that seems to descend, level by level, to more and more extreme depths of depraved intensity. You could say that Aronofsky is drawing on “The Shining” (the isolated setting and Bardem’s stony resentment) and also on “Rosemary’s Baby,” the greatest of all paranoid horror films. If so, however, he heads right for that film’s in-your-face, party-with-the-devil final scene (“Hail Satan!”), which director Roman Polanski took an entire two-hour movie to work up to. That movie was a bad-dream vision of pregnancy in which Rosemary paid the price for her trust and naïveté. But what, exactly, is the sin Lawrence is paying for?
The way “mother!” portrays it, she’s an addict of countrified good taste who’s too obsessed with her Martha Stewart home-restoration project. But seriously, this is a crime? The role, as written, is so thin that Lawrence, long hair parted down the middle, has to infuse it with her personality just to create a semblance of a character. She makes this victim-heroine a warm, eager, reasonable sweetheart who is full of feeling (and wants to have a baby herself), but watches her life turn into a funhouse of torment.
She does take a mysterious golden elixir, which may have head-altering properties. (But then she stops taking it, and the madness escalates anyway.) The fact that she imbibes any substance at all may link the film, in Aronofsky’s mind, to the Ellen Burstyn section of “Requiem for a Dream,” in which the director imagined addiction to amphetamines as a hallucination from hell. But that outrageous and memorable episode expressed something deep and true: that this is what drugs could do to your brain.
In “mother!,” the filmmaker basically just keeps coming up with bigger and better ways to punish his heroine. Harris’s wife comes over, and she’s a noodgy drunk played, with blaring ferocity, by Michelle Pfeiffer. A little later, we meet the couple’s adult sons (played by Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), who are at loggerheads, and everything that’s happened so far begins to look like child’s play. We’re now more or less rolling with it, taking refuge in Aronofsky’s puckish skill at staging the delirium, even as his relentless use of hand-held close-ups grows claustrophobic.
There’s an abstract audacity to “mother!” The film’s horror plays off everything from the grabby hordes of celebrity culture to the fear of Nazis and terrorists to — yes — what it means to be a mother (complete with the world’s most ironic exclamation point). All of that makes the film seem ambitious. But it also makes it a movie that’s about everything and nothing. You might say that it’s Aronofsky’s (confessional?) vision of what it’s like being married to a famous egocentric artist. But you could also say that “mother!” is so intent on putting an undeserving woman through the terrors of the damned that there’s a residue of misogyny to its design. Toss in a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shamyalan (a good or bad thing? Maybe both), and you’ve got a head-trip horror movie with something for everyone — except, perhaps, for those who want to emerge feeling more haunted than assaulted.