Oh, the things Darren Aronofsky does to his latest leading-lady turned muse, Jennifer Lawrence.
In “Mother!”, he keeps the camera in Lawrence’s face, on her shoulder and looking down her shirt as she is insulted, grabbed, pummeled and worse.
It’s a test that puts her character through hell fire and the Oscar winner herself through the acting version of that, playing a confused, tormented, enraged and ill-used wife and “Mother!” to that most monstrous of real-world monsters, the creative “genius.”
“Mother!” is a chaotic horror puzzle, “Rosemary’s Baby” by way of “La Dolce Vita” with images flirting with Dante’s “Inferno.” And if you’re not arguing with your date when you leave the theater, you’ve not been paying attention.
We meet the unnamed wife as she painstakingly renovates the striking, multi-storey old rural house that “the poet” calls home. Played by Javier Bardem with his usual Continental charm and hint of narcissistic menace, he has writer’s block and she lives only to ease him through this. She has made him a home, and figures she and she alone “is enough” for him.
Until a wheezing, sickly surgeon (Ed Harris) abruptly shows up and is just-as-abruptly invited to stay. The guy’s sexy harridan of a wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) rolls in. Then their two sons (Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson) arrive, mid-feud, and all hell breaks loose.
The wife entreats one and all to just leave. She’s had her daily dose of the powdered drink that keeps her going, she’s furious at her husband’s inconsideration and exhausted at constantly telling these nameless new house guests to not sit on that sink, “It’s not anchored,” to stay out of the poet’s study and to leave the precious jewel from his past in its holder. But nobody listens to her or respects her wishes.
The husband? He’s delighted to greet each perfunctory arrival — fresh faces telling him fresh stories. And if a little blood is spilled, if a death followed by a wake, filling their house with strangers, brings chaos, it’s enough for him that he’s got something to write about. It’s enough for his agent (Kristen Wiig), too.
Confused? The clues are in the dialogue — the guest she asks “Who ARE you? What are you doing here?”
“What are ANY of us doing here?”
It’s in Pfeiffer’s nosiness, poking around the big, rambling house, judging the wife for not yet having a child.
“Have kids. Then you’ll be creating something together,” she purrs. And looking at the massive hands-on one-woman renovation project they live in, she delivers her one big spoiler.
“All this is just…setting.”
Thus does every contrived conflict, every arbitrary, dictated-by-story-demands character entrance (Stephen McHattie plays the “zealot” leader of the poet’s mob of fans), every plot twist and bizarre taste of the surreal and supernatural, every blast of violence, make sense. It’s how a writer writes, starting with the familiar, abandoning it for the new.
“Mother!” is a plunge into the creative mind as viewed by the first character/central protagonist created by that mind, the loved-one closest to that creator, the one most necessary to the process yet the one most assured of getting hurt.
Aronofsky toys with the artist’s relationship with his fans and his muse/lover in this morbid plunge into the maelstrom of creation, the jewel-like rarity of that new idea that starts the process, the need to lose that jewel or abandon this or that familiar character to start anew, and the baggage that comes with success — fame, responsibilities to characters you’ve created, and to your fans.
It’s all a little grad school Creative Writing in its symbolism and subtexts writ so large that no amount of surface mayhem can hide them. It’s more engrossing than terrifying, horrific instead of simply scary.
But Lawrence, comfortably ensconced on the middle ground between the sexy Oscar winner she is and the put-upon overmatched “girl” that clings to her, makes her confusion and rising terror a tour de force, giving her most harowing performance in the process.
And if their love-match horror movie doesn’t find an audience and the whole dating an artist thing doesn’t work out, at least she’ll still have “Mother!” to look back on for Aronofsky’s explanation for the way these things go. The muse, all too often, is the odd woman (or man) out.
MPAA Rating:R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kristen Wiig, Domhnall Gleeson
Credits: Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. A Paramount release.
Running time: 2:01