Unless you’re Darren Aronofsky, and vagueness is your wheelhouse. This is where Mother!, comes in, a film which from a literal point of view is perfectly incomprehensible. And while it’s impeccably directed, utilizing fresh techniques, and is heavily metaphorical, the execution is both confusing and blunt at the same time.
An unnamed young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a beautiful secluded house with her husband (Javier Bardem), a popular author going through writers’ block as she continually renovates the house. But soon their lives are interrupted by interlopers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) coming to stay, leading to more and more imposing guests. All the while the protagonist feels anxious in her relationship possibly spurned on by the mysterious powers of the house.
The fact that none of the characters are named in this film is an interesting idea, and to his credit, Aronofsky manages to get around using names in character interactions well enough. This movie is also shot terrifically well, following Lawrence for the duration of the runtime with only a few very particular exceptions. This is a benefit to creating an atmosphere of distrust and just a general disconnect she has from all the other characters. The movie also has a very tense build. It reminds me particularly of Rosemary’s Baby (and not just because one of the posters is a direct mimic to that earlier film), but also elements of Rebecca, in the mystery inherent to the characters around Lawrence.
However if you try focusing on the story for any length of time, it falls apart, largely because of the way the story is told. There are dozens of plot holes, and swaths of psychological, supernatural, and basic story points that are completely unexplained if held to traditional scrutiny. However there is a method, though it’s emphatically pretentious in that regard. There’s an almost ingenious idea at play, but there are still aspects present that are convoluted. It tries to blur the lines of reality in a couple of these, through things Lawrence does that impact her perception, but this device doesn’t support the intent of the film. Also, Aronofsky’s so predisposed with the narrative structure he’s created, he doesn’t care about how the story looks, which is ultimately utter insanity.
The characters are never characters, rather they’re stand-ins. As such, you can never quite engage with them, save for Lawrence on occasion, who has semi-realistic responses to the insanity of her circumstances. But even then, she’s often pointlessly passive and submissive, not calling out nearly as much as she should. However, she succeeds in giving her role some humanity while Bardem has been proven to be good as the uncomfortable enigma before. Their chemistry is lacking though, in part due to the age difference, and neither can quite sell some of the more deficient dialogue. Harris and Pfeiffer are quite good, as are Domhnall and Brian Gleeson in their small parts as a pair of brothers. And Stephen McHattie gives one of his signature bizarre performances.
He doesn’t appear until the third act, which is where Mother! takes a nosedive into lunacy. Though Aronofsky clearly intends for it to be claustrophobic, intense, and really uncomfortable, it’s too ridiculous to convey any of those. Circumstances escalate so quickly and in such strange directions, until the climax where you could almost say it goes needlessly dark. Again, there’s ulterior meanings behind all these, but so much comes out of nowhere so fast it goes off the rails of subtlety. There is an attempt to tie everything up that is a little clever. But it’s also very vague, and even thematically doesn’t really make sense. At the close of the movie, it leaves you discombobulated, a little condescended to, and just in utter bewilderment at what you just watched.
I realize this review is a little incoherent, but it’s terribly difficult to discuss this movie and its symbolism without massive spoilers. But it’s been some time since I’ve seen such a glaring case of style over substance and its fascinating. There’s definite cleverness in Mother! in its presentation and what it’s saying with its story. And while there are quite a few areas here where it works well, it also comes off as inarticulate, pretentious, and sensibly void in spite of its themeing; and no amount of good camera-work and bottle show staging can truly fix that.