Unwanted visitors transform a couple’s idyllic home into a hellscape
A decorator (Jennifer Lawrence) and poet (Javier Bardem) live in a secluded home, far from the madding crowd. The problems begin when a man obsessed with Bardem’s work (Ed Harris) arrives and is allowed to stay against Lawrence’s wishes. The problems worsen for poor Jennifer Lawrence with the arrival of Ed Harris’ wife and children. By the time an unconventional wake and an orgy of fan adulation come around, the madding crowd has created a full-on nightmare.
There is much debate over what Mother! is as a film, whether it’s any good, or whether it’s unfair to split such an artistic expression into a binary good/bad decision. The problem with A.O Scott’s definition of Mother! as a divine comedy is that the film is only funny at a couple of unintentionally amusing points. Clues that it might be an art film in that it gets quite boring at points and often doesn’t make much sense. To give my two cents, Mother! is an experimental horror that just doesn’t really work.
A major problem with the film is that it fails to fully capture the creeping dread necessary to captivate the audience. Perhaps the most intense and uncomfortable set-piece is an impromptu house party, and as a weary host of such endeavours I could relate to Jennifer Lawrence’s increasing exasperation with the strangers invading her home. The same thing is recreated later in the film, with ten times the intensity to half the effect.
A large part of the growing anti-climax is the absence of a score, one of the most crucial elements of horror and an artistic decision that smacks of writer-director Darren Aronofsky feeling he is above the genre. Aronofsky and cinematographerMatthew Libatique have shot largely in Super 16mm, making the whole thing feel like a grainy flashback. While the intention is a closely personal feel, this decision is also strained as the film events become increasingly removed from reality.
A misguided pretension is even more marked in the final act, as the chaos veers from the vaguely plausible to the completely insane to the utterly incomprehensible. Ultimately Aronofsky follows a tried and true route of the laziest horror hack by substituting increasing amounts of gore and panic for character depth and pathos.
Aronofsky’s prior work has contained engaging character study, and psychological horror Black Swan was so much more effective because of a complex central role. The characters in Mother! are not named, a sign of Aronofsky’s interest in wider themes over plot and structure. This can feel like a lost opportunity, as the film initially does a good job of convincingly keeping Lawrence inside the house as it turns from a sanctuary into a prison.
The grandiose cinematic metaphor at the heart of Mother! is open to interpretation, whether it represents the chauvinism at the core of mob mentality or man’s selfishness leading to the very destruction of the earth beneath our feet. Lofty aims, but the cart is put before the horse; without the scares and overall tone befitting the genre, it’s hard for an audience to engage with these higher ideals.
Jennifer Lawrence always brings a radiance to her screen performances, yet there are only so many ways a character can express indignant shock. Perhaps the best performance of the film is Michelle Pfieffer as a narcissistic and belittling houseguest, the portent of things to come.