“I’m his mother!” screams Jennifer Lawrence in an eerily calm moment in the third act of writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s new film, mother!. The titular line — delivered with a lower-case, exclamation-pointed fury — breaks through the film’s sudden, unsettling stillness. Like the eye of a storm that thunders throughout the entirety of the third act, itself a cacophonous finale that escalates like a nightmarish conclusion following the film’s fever-dream-like setup.
That setup, incidentally, seems to readily give you the ending in the opening seconds, making mother! less about wondering where it’s going, instead causing you to guess exactly how it will get there. It’s a cinematic journey, rather than a destination. Even as the path seems to narrow as the film progresses, there’s so much visceral blindsiding it’s all but impossible to predict what’s to come throughout.
The story itself concerns a man (Javier Bardem) who’s suffering from writer’s block, while his wife (Lawrence) spends her time renovating their labyrinthine house, an aged, idyllic structure that lies in the middle of an unnamed wilderness. No roads lead to or from the couples’ home, and its apparent displacement surrounded by a seemingly endless forest is mirrored by its own floor plan — a dizzying disarray of hallways and staircases that encircle a small, uncharacteristically geometric center.
Once the couple is greeted with an unannounced visitor (Ed Harris), he explains that he was told their house was a bed and breakfast. As the husband invites the weary traveller inside, his seemingly boundless good nature is put at odds with his wife’s protective desire for solitude and tranquility. Before long, the traveler’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, and despite their irreverent disregard for their hostesses’ tentative hospitality, the two are, nonetheless, further embraced by their host’s almost reactionary sense of unbound welcoming.
Despite being bookended, mother! has the potential to prompt debates as to what’s at its heart for years to come, and with its messianic overtones and the dangers of cult-like devotion, much of the film is left open to interpretation. And like any pure, artistic statement, mother! is almost certain to cause divisive reactions among audiences, both for its showcasing of Aronofsky’s uncompromising vision, and for some of the most unsettling imagery put to film in recent memory.
On that note, the fact that mother! is being marketed as a horror film, which it is more by default than by design. Promoted tweets with the tagline “You’ll freak too” are obviously aimed to capitalize on the runaway success of It, but may lead to some frustrated reactions from those expecting cinematic convention, who will instead walk out of the theater having been served a beautiful, terrifying, wholly original vision from Aronofsky.
mother! opens Friday, September 15 in theaters everywhere.