O ‘mother!,’ what art thou? Odd Jennifer Lawrence film pounds senses
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More like: “MOTHER!!!!!!!”
Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan”) is a greatly gifted filmmaker who revels in exploring obsessions and addictions and madness, often conveyed with visual flourishes equal parts beautiful and grotesque.
This time around, we’re heavy on the latter.
With the pounding, throbbing, screeching, feature-length metaphor titled “mother!” — and yes, that exclamation point belongs there and then some — Aronofsky assaults our senses with shocking and sometimes almost sickening imagery, often accompanied by intentionally annoying sounds, from the buzzzzzzing of a dying insect to pipes bursting to glass shattering to bones snapping.
Even the camera moves seem designed to provoke and/or irritate. At times the handheld cam following Jennifer Lawrence around as she zigzags from room to room and bounces up and down the stairs is so close to her we’re afraid she’s going to turn around and hit her forehead on the lens.
Nearly every scene in “mother!” is shot inside a barn-sized house isolated on a remote plot of land … somewhere. (Occasionally the action moves to the front porch, or we get a long shot of the house. There are references to outside locales such as a hospital, but we never seen any other structures or any neighbors.) The action and the scale of the acting are often more befitting an elaborate stage play than a film.
Lawrence plays Mother, and yes, this is one of those movies in which nobody has a given name. (Even the minor supporting characters are credited as “Bumbler” or “Philanderer” or “Fool” or “Wanderer.”) Mother is a sweet, passive, almost submissive young woman, in her 20s, married to the dominant and brooding and much older Him (Javier Bardem). As one character bluntly observes, “There’s a whole generation between you two.”
From the get-go, everything about their world seems a bit off. Despite the politeness and the verbal expressions of love, there’s underlying tension between Mother, who is personally rehabbing every inch of the house (she calls it “his house”) from top to bottom, and Him, a writer of some renown who hasn’t created any new works in a very long time.
Then there’s the house itself. It’s not one of those scary movie haunted houses with a mind of its own, but it DOES seem to have a beating heart of sorts trapped within in its walls, and at times it seems as if Mother is at war with the structure, e.g., when a hole in a floorboard oozes a blood-like substance and refuses to be patched up.
Things go from unsettling to bizarre with the arrival of Man (Ed Harris), a lean and intense stranger with a nasty cough who shows up uninvited one night and immediately ingratiates himself with Him. Why not stay the night, Man!
The next morning, Man’s sexy, hard-drinking, jibber-jabbering wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives on the scene and acts as if she owns the place — snooping around the house, making a mess of things in room after room, asking all sorts of inappropriate questions of Mother.
Oh, and Man and Woman have two grown sons who hate each other. They’re not called Cain and Abel, but that’s just a technicality.
Mother is horrified by these strange and rude and inappropriate people invading her home. Him welcomes them as if they’re old and dear friends. What is going on here?!
Just when “Mother!” is starting to feel like a Town and Country version of “Rosemary’s Baby,” Aronofsky amps up the madness tenfold, hammering us over the head with numerous visual references to organized religion, and fever-dream sequences in which seemingly hundreds of people pile into the house and engage in group behavior ranging from blind hero worship to rioting to mass incarceration to murder to the brutal assault of one major character.
It’s all staged with impressive craftsmanship, but to what end? Is Aronofsky mocking certain biblical passages with literal interpretations — or is “mother!” more of a commentary on the artist and the artistic process? Then again, why is Kristen Wiig playing a publicist turned assassin? And what’s with the movie’s obsession with household plumbing, from toilets to the faucets to an exploding sink?
We’re destined to never know, and to care for a much shorter period of time.
Harris and Pfeiffer are effective and sly and intriguing as the Houseguests from Hell. But the leads, obviously talented performers (and both Academy Award winners), seem mired in the muck at first and then overwhelmed by the pyrotechnics. Bardem plays Him as a self-pitying, narcissistic glory hound who’s a drag to be around. Even when he explodes with rage or finds a rare moment of joy, it feels contrived.
Lawrence pouts and screams and cries with great gusto. Her eyes dart about with mad fear at the lunatics who have invaded her house. It’s a big performance, but not a GREAT big performance.
Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated R (for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language). Running time: 121 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.