While it might be tempting to admire Mother! for its distinct vision or its technical prowess, the film is considerably more difficult to embrace on a narrative or emotional level.
This abstract exploration of a crumbling relationship from filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) starts as a cautionary tale about excessive kindness to strangers and winds up spiraling into incoherent insanity. The muddled result admirably tries to inject moral complexity into a familiar scenario, but overall is more pretentious than provocative.
The story takes place almost entirely inside a rural house being renovated by a nameless poet (Javier Bardem) struggling with writer’s block and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who can’t commit to having a baby.
One night, a mysterious man (Ed Harris) knocks on the door, claiming to be a doctor needing a place to stay. She almost immediately claims the nosy interloper has become too intrusive, with the writer’s generosity causing some tension in their marriage. And that’s even before secrets are revealed, starting with the outsider’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) sharing some bitterness and resentment.
Along the way, plenty of creepy imagery and exaggerated sound effects suggest something more sinister that can’t be revealed here — except that the arrival of more visitors brings more chaos.
This bizarre combination of domestic drama, supernatural thriller and pitch-black absurdist comedy clearly isn’t for all tastes. Genre aficionados or Lawrence fans might become frustrated with the lack of traditional frights. For extended stretches, the film is heavy on mood and atmosphere but light on narrative momentum. It subversively tweaks familiar concepts, such as unwelcome intruders and nighttime noises in a creaky old house.
However, there are much bigger ideas about marriage, spirituality, fame, and life-versus-art packed into Aronofsky’s screenplay, which derives some suspense from its intriguing character dynamics.
The film is unsettling in spots and head-scratching in others, yet remains difficult to dismiss because of its audacious visual flourishes, such as the abundant use of hand-held close-ups as the camera follows the title character around the house.
Still, it’s easy to find annoyances. Lawrence’s character is too passive and helpless. The film is overstuffed with quirks and affectations. Despite the physical intimacy, the film remains emotionally detached.
The latter is the most problematic, as the superior craftsmanship is overwhelmed by Aronofsky’s relentlessly cynical outlook on humanity. The film might have you screaming for the wrong reasons.