The subtitle of Darren Aronofsky’s terrorized-wife horror thriller Mother! could be, to borrow a phrase from Thelma Ritter in All About Eve, “Everything But the Bloodhounds Snappin’ at Her Rear End.” In Mother! there’s not much that doesn’t happen to Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed character, the loyal wife of a successful poet played by Javier Bardem. (In the credits, these characters are identified only as “Mother” and “Him.”) The two live in a semi-renovated house almost literally in the middle of nowhere, with no driveway and no cellphone reception. When Lawrence opens the door, she gazes upon a field with a curtain of trees just beyond, but she never steps past the threshold. Instead, she spends her days sprucing up the interior, doing things like contemplating changing the walls from muddy gray to sunshine gold and worrying about the structural integrity of the auxiliary kitchen sink.
Meanwhile, Bardem broods in his study, a place that’s off limits unless he is present. He’s having trouble writing, and he’s angry about it. Also, he’s overly attached to a shiny, fragile crystal thing that he keeps on a shelf in his workspace. The pattern of this couple’s days seems set from the start: Lawrence hovers anxiously, assuring Bardem he’ll soon create something brilliant. Bardem alternately scowls at her and ignores her. She seems to find relief by mixing up a drink made with saffron-colored powder. At least the house seems sort of nice, potentially.
One evening, there’s a knock at the door. Why look, it’s Ed Harris, a distracted orthopedic surgeon in a bowtie! Bardem, to Lawrence’s annoyance, invites him to stay the night. The next morning, another knock: It’s Michelle Pfeiffer, all bossy and mean and foxy, who is also invited to hang out for a spell. With a contemptuous scowl, she grills Lawrence on the subject every young wife just loves: “Don’t you want children?” Commandeering the laundry room, she empties the washing machine by dumping its contents on the floor. Dangling a bit of limp, gray jersey, she observes disdainfully that Lawrence’s choice of underwear is probably to blame for the fact that she hasn’t yet conceived.
Lawrence can’t believe what she’s seeing, or hearing—and from there, it gets worse, as if Ritter had prophesized the whole thing. Lawrence is subject to all sorts of hallucinatory—or are they?—indignities: She’s unnerved by glowing red vagina-shaped holes in the floorboards. Strangers come and eat the cake she’s made before she can even release it from the pan. Police in riot gear show up, zombie-like entities claw at her from behind a chainlike fence, and—surely the worst—she’s forced to pick up after houseguests who leave bloody tissues around the sink. Ew.
What, exactly, is going on in Mother! and what, in the end, is the point? That’s for Aronofsky to know and you to find out. Maybe. In his first film since the 2014 Noah, Aronofsky sifts through Roman Polanski’s wastebasket and weeds out a little Repulsion here, a lot of Rosemary’s Baby there. He tosses in a soupçon of Gaslight, and a pinch or two of Evil Dead and Saving Private Ryan while he’s at it. Poke a stick into the psychology of Mother! you might come up with something like this: The male artist both punishes and worships the muse; he needs her to get stuff done, but 99% of the time he doesn’t really want her around. He needs chaos to create while she craves peace and order. Sometimes he’s nice, but mostly he’s cruel. The muse smiles and brings him a snack, hoping that will help.
Mother! is ambitious and dorky, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting redone as swirl-art. It’s entertaining to watch, because it’s not easy to see where it’s going—though you might feel a little underwhelmed when you discover where it ends up. The main reason to keep watching is Lawrence, receptive and radiant. If you were to tote up the lines of dialogue she gets, you wouldn’t find many, and most are of the “What are you doing?” and “Get out of here!” variety. But her face, almost celestial in its insistent hope, gets the job done. It’s as guileless as a piece of fruit still on the tree, yearning for the touch of the sun.
Aronofsky, to his credit, doesn’t take delight in torturing his lead character. His sympathy is with her every minute, and ours is too. But even though the movie’s effects are elaborate and expensive-looking—the house itself becomes a character, a prison folding in itself, or a mansion exploding like a grim flower—the picture leaves us with nothing, or very little, to hang onto. It tries so desperately to be crazy and disturbing that all we can see is the effort made and the money spent. No wonder there’s an exclamation mark in its title. Aronofsky just doesn’t know when to quit.