When self-styled auteur Darren Aranofsky can astound us when he is focused and operating with at least a little self-restraint. (Case in point: The simple brilliance of The Wrestler.) When allowed to run amok, you get the intense weirdness of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.
And then there’s mother!. Note the stylized spelling and punctuation style; it’s the first sign of the self-indulgent pretension awaiting viewers in this muddled, overbearing film that positions itself initially as Martin Amis-lite pseudo-psycho thriller about the secret, seedy misery of an upper class couple, and then makes a hard-left turn into a heavy-handed religious allegory in the final act that slides into poor taste.
Aronofsky channels a little bit of Luis Buñuel and a lot of Roman Polanski into his story of a recently married May-December couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. He’s a writer and she’s his muse, though he mostly struggles with writer’s block while she works on restoring his isolated family home. This is punctuated by scenes of her wandering around the enormous place and experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations a la a late-’90s graphic adventure PC game. It quickly becomes evident that there is tension between to the two; she’s clingy and insecure, and he’s condescending and dismissive of her. She also might be going nuts, or even in the grips of a Jacob’s Ladder scenario.
A strange twist occurs when a man (Ed Harris) arrives at the house thinking it to be a bed and breakfast; not only does he insinuate himself into their domestic life, his wife (Michelle Pfieffer) and later their estranged sons (Brian and Domnhall Gleeson) show up as well. Soon we’re knee-deep in heavy drinking, invasions of privacy, and bloody violence.
Lawrence’s character grows understandably distressed, and Aronofsky teases the viewer well enough as to where it’s all going to keep us willingly on the hook, building a nice amount of tension and dread for a pay-off that never comes.
Things get progressively weirder, with Bardem’s latest prose drawing a literal horde of fans to the house, a cult forms and then splits, riot cops arrives, and a literal war is fought inside the house — all within the literal span of roughly 20 mind-bending minutes. When the Big Reveal occurs (after it’s been already been telegraphed), it’s little more than a clunky metaphor that feels more self-indulgent and hokey than revelatory.
It’s also an incredibly egotistical and self-serving one. When viewed from the angle of Bardem’s character as a proxy for the filmmaker it becomes clear that mother! is little more than the self-portrait of a self-important artist, and a treatise that collapses under the weight of its self-indulgence.
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