Image Credit to Indiewire
The following review contains spoilers.
Mother!’s first full scene begins with a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) reaching across her bed. When she feels nothing but air and the softness of her mattress, she heads downstairs to find her husband (Javier Bardem).
Director Darren Aronofsky uses this situation to craft an atmosphere of eerie peacefulness around his picture’s only setting, the house. As Lawrence searches for her husband, Aronofsky’s moving camera conveys just how spacious the couple’s home is, but his precise sound design establishes that such spaciousness also gives the house a creepy vibe since it makes every noise seem like the product of a buried threat.
Following this, Aronofsky has Lawrence move towards the front of the house. The next image captures how the couple’s land receives only a modest amount of morning sunlight, enough to differentiate day and night, but not enough to get rid of the darkness both surrounding and inside their home. In just a few minutes, then, Aronofsky conveys an understanding of the situation Lawrence and Bardem are in: an outwardly calm and relaxing one with danger lurking underneath.
In the film’s early sequences, the calm seems to be represented by Lawrence and Bardem’s relationship. It’s an awkward pairing for certain; he’s an older man who wishes to construct poetry but struggles with writer’s block and she’s a young woman who seems to have a surplus of creativity, enough so that she’s built the very house the two live in and is starting to paint it. But they both have an affection for each other and Lawrence, who will serve as the audience’s surrogate, can always be caught making faces that reveal how deeply in love with Bardem she is.
If peacefulness is apparently captured by Lawrence and Bardem’s couple in Mother!’s early scenes, then danger arrives with the introduction of another, older couple: referred to in the credits as only man (Ed Harris) and woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Harris and Pfeiffer present themselves as having stumbled upon the house by accident while looking for a bed & breakfast, but eventually Lawrence and Bardem discover that the two have come to their home on purpose. As if lying about their intentions wasn’t bad enough, the new couple makes life harder for Lawrence and Bardem. They create a mess inside Lawrence’s meticulously designed and clean home by clogging up toilets, breaking objects, smoking, spilling food, and throwing washed laundry on the dirty floor. Worse, they also create or, to put it more accurately, uncover a mess within Lawrence and Bardem’s relationship, mainly by making Lawrence aware of how Bardem’s character rarely takes decisions with her approval (such as his choice to let Harris and Pfeiffer stay in his home despite their unpleasantness) and that the young couple’s inability to have a child has strained their marriage.
Once Lawrence realizes how threatening Harris and Pfeiffer are, Mother! turns into a series of creepy, disturbing horror sequences in which her character experiences discomfort, pain, and a loss of control. It’s difficult to really describe these sequences in detail nor would one want to since they become increasingly imaginative and ludicrous. What must be stated about Mother! is that there is usually a typical plot and standard set of themes that a film like this-one about a home under siege-would be expected to follow, but Aronofsky completely upends those expectations. So surprising and unpredictable is the movie’s story and thematic preoccupations that there have been numerous reports of audiences being disgusted and infuriated with the film’s twists and turns, culminating in an F cinemascore.
However, such reactions are rather inappropriate responses to what Aronofsky has achieved with Mother!. Despite all its curveballs, Aronofsky’s picture never stops being suspenseful and gripping. Aronofsky succeeds in maintaining this tone because he continues to use geography and sound design in complex ways, like he did in the film’s intro. As Mother! unfolds, Aronofsky builds dread out of the house’s largeness. Pulse pounding moments are constructed from creaky floors, open doors, a dark basement, rooms that dwarf Lawrence in such a way as to make her seem powerless, and walls, windows, and furniture that mask the dangers she’s dealing with. The style reaches a peak in the film’s outrageous and beautiful final section, in which Lawrence deals with a threat in every room and around every corner of her home.
Matching Mother!’s geography is how it sound operates. Throughout the film, Aronofsky relies on silence to either prolong the suspense or make a seemingly meaningless moment powerful; sequences involving Lawrence pacing around in circles or her cleaning become very absorbing due to how little sound one hears in them. The silence also punctuates any loud noises; a piece of furniture breaking or a sharp sound cue become terrifyingly shocking when they occur in a silent environment. This intricate sound design ultimately leads to the film’s final sequence being filled with relentlessly loud noise, noise that-due to being so rare earlier in the picture-deepens the frightening feeling that Lawrence is facing far too many dangers from far too many places in her house than she can hope to handle.
Despite Aronofsky’s incredible use of geography and sound, though, the scariest aspect of Mother! is Javier Bardem’s character. As the film reaches its ending, it becomes clear that Bardem’s poet-more than any of the intruders-is Lawrence’s true enemy. He is overly-eager to view the house disrupters as guests that he must please, almost relishing in the fact that they’re such prying, ill-mannered burdens on his family (an attitude that makes sense when one realizes why these people are actually visiting him and Lawrence). The decision to make Bardem’s figure the true antagonist of Mother! transforms the work from a solidly suspenseful picture into one of the best films of the year. This transformation occurs because Lawrence captures the heartbreak of their crumbling relationship perfectly. She grows increasingly frustrated at how delusional and harmful Bardem’s form of appeasement turns out to be. However, if one pays attention to her dialogue and Lawrence’s line readings, one realizes that while she feels upset and angry at Bardem, Lawrence rarely displays rage. Rather, she communicates how much sadness and pain her character feels, how she sees Bardem’s actions as a betrayal to their marriage, and how she desperately commits to the idea that if she begs him to change, he will. In playing her character this way, Lawrence reveals the biggest shock of Mother!, which is that her character is as delusional as Bardem’s, but while his delusion seems to be to appeal to everyone, her delusion is that despite everything, she loves him and wants to appeal to him. Once this startling revelation is made, every interaction between the couple becomes emotionally searing.
Eventually, Bardem commits an unforgivable sin in their marriage, and Lawrence snaps. It’s here, nearing the conclusion of his work, that Aronofsky missteps. The problem isn’t with the work’s divisive final sequence, which while predictable, fits with Mother!’s themes, emotions, and story. Instead, the misstep occurs in the scene prior to this sequence, in which Lawrence enacts revenge on Bardem and the house’s intruders for the suffering they’ve caused her. Rather than deliver such payback in an over-the-top way that allows her to let out rage, thus keeping in line with the work’s desire to focus on extreme events and the intense emotions of the protagonist, Lawrence makes a simple, logical gesture that brings massive destruction against her enemies. The simplicity and logic of the gesture seems to serve less of a thematic or emotional purpose and more of a story one (namely answering why the audience saw what it saw earlier in the film). As a result, this scene feels cheap. However, the defectiveness of this moment only highlights how aesthetically and emotionally rich the film Aronofsky crafted is. Mother! is a ridiculous gem, building incredible tension through its director’s stylistic choices and reaching amazing emotional highs thanks to its lead actresses’ performance. What more could you want, nay, what more could you need from a work of horror cinema?