Darren Aronofsky has realized that the world is going to hell. In a statement released just ahead of the Venice Film Festival, the filmmaker declared, “It is a mad time to be alive.” As proof, he cited overpopulation, climate change, hunger, the absurdity of contemporary politics and the fact that selfie-crazed tourists in South America have suffocated two baby dolphins. “From this primordial soup of angst and helplessness, I woke up one morning and this movie poured out of me like a fever dream,” Aronofsky explained. Within five days, he’d completed a draft of his seventh feature, Mother!
This hyperbolic message makes for a worrisome preface to Aronofsky’s new home-invasion thriller, especially if you’re familiar with his previous acts of social commentary. His most recent feature, 2014’s Noah, transformed the biblical flood into both an environmental allegory and a macho blockbuster, featuring fallen angels who take the shape of walking, talking rock formations and a hero (Russell Crowe) who bellows things like, “It begins.”
In urging humans to accept our mortality, The Fountain, from 2006, cast Hugh Jackman as past, present and future versions of the same guy: One incarnation is a mystical white dude who mourns the death of his quirky wife as he practices tai chi in outer space. And then there’s 2000’s Requiem for a Dream: a marvel of emotional manipulation with a takeaway message of, “We do drugs to escape our sad, lonely lives, but actually, they only make us sadder and lonelier.” Each of these films draws us in with masterful cinematography and art direction, only to squander them on overwritten dialogue, underdeveloped characters and obvious revelations that are supposed to blow our minds.
Mother! (don’t worry, it earns the exclamation point) is just as gorgeous, bombastic and uninterested in presenting fully formed characters as those movies, but it’s also pretty spectacular. Aronofsky’s latest is a dramatization of men’s cruelty to the women who love them, artists’ symbiotic relationships with their fans and, as Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson points out, a biblical creation myth — all funneled into the story of a poet (Javier Bardem), known only as “Him,” and his young wife, the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence, in her most deliciously bonkers performance to date). They live in his majestic but decrepit Victorian mansion, isolated from civilization by a circular yard that is surrounded on all sides by dense, fairy-tale woods. While he battles writer’s block, she cooks, cleans and lovingly restores their home. His annoyance at her constant presence appears to outweigh his gratitude. She’s prone to panic attacks.
As tensions simmer within their marriage, Man (Ed Harris), a stranger, arrives at the door, claiming to have heard the mansion was a boardinghouse. The poet invites him to stay the night, without consulting his wife and despite her obvious discomfort. (They have no idea who this guy really is, and besides, she’s the one who will have an extra person to feed and clean up after.) The men form an instant connection — the guest happens to know his host’s work — but Mother senses that something is off. Although he’s deferential to the poet, the traveler barely acknowledges her existence. He ridicules, then brazenly defies her request that he not smoke in the house. He gets alarmingly drunk. A disturbing secret is revealed. Then the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer as, yes, Woman) shows up, and she’s even nastier to Mother.
Aronofsky scatters small, eerie touches throughout the film’s quiet opening act. The basement furnace lights up in a flash of fire. A disorienting ringing sound accompanies Lawrence’s attacks. But Mother! erupts into an operatic horror story shortly after Pfeiffer’s character appears — and although its multiple layers of symbolism give it more depth than the average Aronofsky polemic, the movie’s baroque, nightmarish second half is what really makes it one of his best.
Aside from 2008’s The Wrestler, an uncharacteristically restrained film that he didn’t have a hand in writing, Aronofsky tends to have the most success with scripts like Mother!, which walks the line between stylized horror and high-concept thriller. His riveting first feature, 1998’s Pi, follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a reclusive, neurotic, self-medicating mathematical genius whose stock market algorithm attracts the attention of two very different, but equally relentless, parties. Black Swan, from 2010, combines such horror tropes as the doppelgänger, the overbearing mother, body horror and the corruption of an innocent in the story of Nina (Natalie Portman, in an Oscar-winning performance that melds naturalism and melodrama), an elite ballerina who unlocks her dark side to dance Swan Lake’s dual role of White Swan and Black Swan. As their protagonists’ mental states slowly deteriorate, these three movies escalate from the mundane to the surreal. Their final acts are shocking, if not actually surprising.
Horror magnifies Aronofsky’s strengths and smooths over his weaknesses. He has always known how to create immersive viewing experiences through dramatic imagery and sharp sound design. Even Pi, with its micro-budget, used a black-and-white palette and a throbbing techno score to situate us in Max’s over-caffeinated world of newsprint and binary code. The final 45 minutes of Mother! make for a finely orchestrated, maximalist thrill ride that no description could do justice to (and even if it could, we wouldn’t tell you because spoilers!). So much is happening on the screen, you don’t know where to look, and that’s entirely appropriate to the material.
It’s fine if horror heroines like Mother and Black Swan’s Nina have minimal backstories, because the point of a psychological thriller is to watch a person’s mental health deteriorate after we meet them and imagine how that could happen to us. But beyond his tendency to write broad archetypes, Aronofsky has a strange relationship to female characters.
He laments women’s mistreatment in patriarchal culture even as his camera slobbers over their naked flesh, and he can’t move past the gender-essentialist notion that they are all either delicate nurturers or catty, ambitious bitches. This time, in Lawrence’s dutiful Mother and Pfeiffer’s icy, passive-aggressive Woman, he gives us one of each. Men often behave terribly in Aronofsky’s films, but in Mother!, as in Noah, Black Swan, The Fountain, Requiem and Pi, they’re also the artists, dreamers and geniuses. This particular brand of sympathetic sexism has made for biting satirical horror since 1975’s The Stepford Wives. In more realistic dramas, it can be awfully condescending.
Aronofsky is a great horror director because horror movies make thematic overreaches exhilarating. They are meant to be hysterical, to craft flesh-and-blood monsters out of irrational fears. If he had written a literal Garden of Eden story in the same ponderous vein as Noah, Mother! would’ve been a slog. You can’t miss his commentary on the human compulsion to ruin beautiful things, but he doesn’t lecture you about conservation and Donald Trump and dead baby dolphins the way Requiem moralizes about drugs. Instead, Mother! is cathartic and gripping and entertaining from beginning to end, not to mention weird as hell. It doesn’t just explore the connections between creation and destruction — like any good horror movie, it makes us feel them.