If Black Swan was filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s fevered valentine to the artist’s self-abnegating drive toward greatness, then Mother!, his loudest and most comprehensive work to date, is either a critique of or a doubling down on that impulse. Both of the film’s unnamed main characters are creators of a sort: They’ve done good work on one thing and wait, with increasing frustration, to conceive a second. He (Javier Bardem) is a poet and she (Jennifer Lawrence) is a housewife, and while she’s completed a top-to-bottom renovation of their home in anticipation of a future of motherhood, he’s become moody and mercurial, plagued with writer’s block.
Even before some unexpected guests arrive, husband and wife are living through a hysterical, perhaps apocalyptic chamber drama. They live in a round house surrounded by a few yards of tall grass, which is itself circled by a forest. Matthew Libatique’s camera rarely steps outside the house, but when it does there’s an eerie stillness to the environment, a sense that monsters or murderers or a damaged planet looms beyond these borders. This house, however, isn’t still, as every footfall and drip from the faucet causes a clamor, and when the basement furnace lights up, the sound is practically volcanic.
Mother! has very little conventional score to speak of, but every object, wall, and floorboard in the film is accounted for in the sound mix. The effect is oppressive, a bit like taking up residence in a distended version of Requiem for a Dream’s influential close-up montage, but various persistent croaks and moans hint that this house itself is an organism. The wife sometimes appears to be in direct communion with its supernatural or historical innards; the camera is almost invariably tethered to her point of view, and sometimes her vision seems to tunnel into glimpses of it in a previous, immolated state.
That’s not the only touch of magic here. The poet ogles a precious crystal etched with veins of fire, and in moments of duress the wife takes a dose of some magic potion, perhaps to calm her surreal visions or perhaps to increase the possibility of conceiving a child. Both goals, though, are disrupted by visitors, who arrive in a trickle that becomes a blackly comic stream. Keen to the film’s hothouse environment, they exist to disrupt the marriage of Aronofsky’s protagonist and expose its frayed nerves. Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Brian and Domhnall Gleeson play the first of these guests, all of whom are respectful of the poet and outwardly disdainful of the wife. Each suffers from a physical or psychic sickness that seems like the result of whatever plagues the world beyond this home. Though Mother!’s marital drama, nosy neighbors, and supernatural portents most directly recall Rosemary’s Baby, much of it feels like if The Visit were reimagined as a Tennessee Williams play, with a lot of vaguely alien characters, one of whom coughs too much, hurling verbal Molotov cocktails at one another.
Mother!’s dialogue and much of its animating suspense is built on a simple binary: the tension between the poet’s craving of praise and adulation and the wife’s desire to offer the poet all of that love herself, and to birth a child with it. But the film is a riot of religious symbolism, of-the-moment socio-political valences, and cinematic references that attempts to unite themes from nearly all of Aronofsky’s work. Like the protagonist of the director’s Noah, the poet is unafraid to cause destruction if it leads to the creation of something greater, and like Requiem for a Dream’s addicts, his willingness to destroy others in order to create ends in its bracing, disgusting logical conclusion. If the house is an Eden, this husband and wife aren’t its Adam and Eve. He’s a god with a Zarathustran ego, not to mention a sadist; she only wants to praise and love him, and feel a semblance of reciprocity in return. She doesn’t suffer due to temptation, but because he forces her to.
Every man in Mother!, at one point or another, ogles and insults Lawrence’s protective, eminently well-meaning homemaker, and it’s a habit the film encourages, dressing the actress in nightgowns and eveningwear that leave little to the imagination. The film, like too much work that grapples with sexual politics, simultaneously seems to indulge and disdain scrutiny of its female characters: The wife spends most of the film politely asking uninvited guests to stay out of private spaces and off of unsafe surfaces, and they ruthlessly spurn her. This repetition, like much of Mother!’s surface drama, is at once agonizing and kind of inert, as neither Lawrence nor Bardem seem much in tune with the film’s steadily escalating hothouse atmosphere.
Whenever Aronofsky’s characters earn a moment of ambiguity or nuance, his film just becomes louder and more leaden with reference. The final act is full of them (religious, historical, bracingly current), and as the story evolves from a book signing into a vision of sacrifice and societal collapse, Aronofsky plants his work firmly in the realm of auto-critique. The finale pleads for awe and punishes itself and us for submitting to its vision, wearing its allusions like a crown of thorns. It’s frankly impressive how much scrutiny the creator’s vision can bear, but even if Mother! can be taken as, at once, a batshit creation myth and an exegesis on authorial sexism, it remains unclear what Aronofsky thinks of individuals who aren’t himself, or whether he does at all.