Darren Aronofsky makes movies that are not for everyone. Occasionally, it feels like his movies are for no one other than himself — and maybe they are. In his career, he’s earned commercial and critical success with movies like “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” and he’s achieved cult status with “Requiem for a Dream.” His newest effort, “mother!”, is unapologetically Aronofsky, and although it won’t win over most critics and moviegoers, it’s an entirely unique film worth the price of admission.
It’s important to note that “mother!” likely wouldn’t have gotten the financial backing to get off the ground without a star-laden cast that believed in the script, and it shows in their respective performances. Jennifer Lawrence plays a housewife trying to rebuild a fire-destroyed house while her poet husband (Javier Bardem) struggles to break his writer’s block. What appears to be a tranquil marriage is tested, along with Lawrence’s sanity, when a stranger (Ed Harris) and his family begin to intrude on their lives.
From the outset, “mother!” feels fairly by-the-numbers, at least by Aronofsky’s standards. But like with most of his filmography, “mother!” unravels very quickly and the illusion of stability starts to wear off with every passing moment. Things go from good, to okay, to bad, to very bad, to apocalyptically bad. And even that might be an understatement. Although the disintegration of the plot in “mother!” is uncomfortable, thanks in part to a convincing breakdown by Lawrence and a lot of tight, claustrophobic tracking shots, it’s also what keeps the audience in their seats.
Most of the Aronofsky catalogue plays like a Greek tragedy — addiction in “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for a Dream,” body dysmorphia in “Black Swan” — “mother!” serves as an overarching biblical allegory that stretches all the way from “Creation” to “Revelations” and quite a bit of angry God and smiting in the meantime. It’s about as ambitious a task as a director can undertake, but Aronofsky manages to package it all in a couple of hours and tie it up with an ending that makes the rest of the movie look tame in comparison.
There’s no question that “mother!” is not for everyone, but it was never supposed to be. It’s definitely not the straightforward horror movie the trailers make it out to be, nor is it a home invasion thriller like David Fincher’s “Panic Room.” That’s okay. Even if most people don’t like it, or even hate it (which plenty of critics have admitted to), Aronofsky has done his job. His movies are made to stir up some kind of visceral emotion, bad or good. With “mother!”, there really isn’t a lot of in between, but that’s the kind of polarizing quality some directors set out to accomplish.
Since the advent of surrealist film, general audiences have largely condemned movies that break the traditional mold or challenge them, dating as far back as 1929 when co-directors Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel kept rocks in their pockets at the premiere of “Un Chien Andalou” to protect themselves from an angry crowd that the movie was designed to insult. That’s not to say “mother!” insults its audience, but about half of them will want their money back while the other half waits to buy another round of tickets for the next showing.
In an industry where formula and studio oversight has overtaken creative singularity, “mother!” is an exception. It’s not an easy watch by any means, and it certainly takes a few opportunities to push the audience’s buttons, but sometimes the audience needs to get their buttons pushed and their boundaries stretched, and there’s no one better at doing that than Darren Aronofsky.