Review: Maddening ‘mother!’ a descent into mental hell

Darren Aronofsky’s latest puts Jennifer Lawrence through the ringer, and then some

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Jennifer Lawrence is pushed to extremes in “mother!” a harrowing and potentially inscrutable descent into madness that keeps getting crazier every time you think it can’t.

Watching the film, viewers will know how Lawrence feels. Her character is trapped inside a world she can’t make sense of that keeps collapsing on itself, setting itself on fire, and then burning down its own charred remains. In the end, all that’s left is ash, along with a profound sense of unease.

What is going on here? That’s a good question, and it’s not one director Darren Aronofsky is quick to answer. Aronofsky has never been one to dole out cinematic hugs. “Pi,” his first film, ended with its lead character drilling a hole in his skull, and that was a treat compared to how things ended for his characters in “Requiem for a Dream.” Still, “mother!” is dealing in something else entirely, and it’s his most abstract work to date. It’s a movie whose very point may be its mania, with further meaning locked inside the director’s own head. Someone get the drill bit.

Lawrence stars as an unnamed character referred to in the credits as Mother — no exclamation point — who lives with her poet husband, known only as Him (Javier Bardem). Together they share a beautiful home in the middle of nowhere, which Him has lived in for years and which was once gutted by a massive fire. Mother works to restore it to its pristine original state and tries her best to keep Him happy, fostering an environment where he can write and be creative.

From the onset it’s clear there are problems. “You’ve been working so hard,” Mother tells Him kindly, which he sloughs off. “Yeah, right,” he spits, dismissively. A distraction arrives in the form of Ed Harris — again, there are no names, and he’s credited as Man — an orthopedic surgeon who wanders onto the property. He’s brash, lighting up a cigarette inside the house, but Him takes to him, thereby undercutting her. When Man invites himself to stay the night, Him allows it, despite Mother’s obvious (and understandable) discomfort with the situation.

The next morning, Man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives on the property, challenging Mother and masking it under the guise of chit-chatty familiarity. She asks her about having children, she tosses Mother’s wet clothes onto the basement floor and criticizes her choice in underwear. Things get worse when their two sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and begin violently fighting. Soon the entrance to the house becomes a revolving door of activity and entire armies are pouring in, creating dismay in every corner. These guests are tearing Mother apart, at first figuratively and later, possibly, literally. Complicating matters, Mother becomes pregnant, and maybe the house does too?

What is going on here? It’s clear that “mother!” is working on some sort of a fantasy/ head trip level — Mother regularly downs some sort of yellow substance meant to calm her but which may induce hallucinations — and it’s dealing with themes of parental fears, the precariousness of the creative process and the balance of power within a relationship. Sign posts include “Rosemary’s Baby,” Dante’s Inferno and perhaps the entire Bible (Aronofsky’s last film, “Noah,” was a bonkers take on the story of Noah’s Ark).

Beyond that, “mother!” can be difficult to pin down, but as it ramps up toward its demented climax — the escalation is impressive in its calculation — it works on a visual and psychological level. Lawrence is a powerhouse: she’s almost always framed in close-up, her angelic face expressing some form of anguished desperation, and she gives a tightly controlled, panicked, maddened performance. The poor thing looks like she just needs to be held.

Bardem is wonderful, balanced somewhere between aloof and malicious, while Harris and Pfeiffer are excellent as unscrupulous houseguests from hell. Ultimately, “mother!” belongs to Aronofsky and his vision of domestic apocalypse. It’s a tough nut to crack, but it’s a trip to trying to break it open. Exclamation point earned.




Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language

Running time:

121 minutes