“I want to make a paradise,” says Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Darren Aronofsky’s incendiary psychological horror. The chances are slim, alas, especially with Aronofsky at the helm. After tormenting Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream and Natalie Portman in Black Swan, it’s now J-Law’s turn in this brooding home-invasion tale with an apocalyptic edge.
Unnamed in the film, Lawrence and Javier Bardem – called ‘Mother’ and ‘Him’, rather ominously, in the credits – play a couple living in a beautiful isolated house in the middle of an idyllic rural setting. He’s a writer and poet; she spends her days gently wishing she were pregnant while single-handedly decorating a home that, we later learn, belongs to Him and was previously gutted by a fire.
One day, a doctor (Ed Harris) comes to the door, looking for a room for the night. Invited to stay by Bardem’s blocked author, his presence leaves Lawrence’s character unsettled. The next morning, the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up, and before long, these two are making themselves very comfortable. Aronofsky controls these early scenes masterfully, drip-feeding sounds and images that tantalise and unsettle in equal measure.
Pfeiffer is particularly brilliant, a mischief-maker who arrives as the most unwelcome house guest ever, probing the proud and prudish Lawrence with questions about her fertility and sex life. Then come further uninvited arrivals (Domhnall Gleeson and his brother Brian Gleeson) in a scene that ramps the chaos up to a bloody crescendo.
Who are these people? What do they want? Why do they have an old photo of Bardem in their luggage? What’s the Zippo lighter got to do with it all? Questions, questions. Aronofsky doesn’t provide any literal answers here, rather turning mother! into an elaborate allegory about everything from fan worship to the birth of Christ to the horrors of eternal damnation.
Lawrence is ideal as the innocent lady who sees her perfect (or maybe not so perfect?) life quite literally ripped apart. Bardem likewise is excellent, hovering on the edge of maniacal glee without ever letting it overtake his performance. Such OTT acting would be entirely unnecessary, of course, given how the final act is one twisted fruit-loop of absolute insanity.
Some will undoubtedly find this repellent; others will marvel at Aronofsky’s audacious attempts to deliver a thriller every bit as disturbing as Roman Polanski’s obviously influential Rosemary’s Baby. After Aronofsky’s last film, the religious blockbuster Noah, this feels decidedly Satanic.
Full of horror and hysteria, mother! never quite sustains the brilliance of its first half. But whatever your feelings, you won’t be able to stop watching for fear you might miss a second of its nuttiness.