Darren Aronofsky Cuts Shock Rock Gem With Ferocious "mother!"

In his 2010 review of psychological horror film “Black Swan,” The New Yorker’s David Denby correctly identified director Darren Aronofsky as “an extremist” and his movie as lacking “a normal reality to take off from, so the outbreaks of violence don’t shock as much as they might.” The picture – which famously earned actor Natalie Portman an Oscar at least in part for dance sequences she may or may not have featured in – is nothing if not loud. It plays at one volume – eleven – its trashy, ice pick-to-head symbolism roaring at viewers with the subtlety of a thousand Italian musicians hammering out a Foo Fighters cover.

At least half a dozen critics have unjustly referred to “The Revenant” director Alejandro González Iñárritu as “the arthouse Michael Bay.” That distinction belongs to Aronofsky.

The filmmaker’s commercial breakthrough “Requiem For A Dream” is arguably the most beloved propaganda film of all time, showier than anything Bay has ever put his name to. Then there’s unintelligible time travel opus “The Fountain” and blockheaded biblical adaptation “Noah” sucking up air in Aronofsky’s filmography, with only his debut “Pi” and luminous Mickey Rourke showcase “The Wrestler” rising above the din. Early word on horror film “mother!” suggested the filmmaker’s noisiest movie yet. And in some ways, it is. But it’s also where Aronofsky finally makes his predilection for overkill work for him instead of against him.

Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence plays the title character, an unnamed young wife making a life for herself and her husband (Javier Bardem) in a rural, octagonal Victorian house. The pic rarely ventures outside these four walls, only going so far as the couple’s yard, offering a dedicated close-up to an unusually isolated married life. “She” remakes the house while “he,” a famous poet, suffers debilitating writer’s block. Standard marital troubles between Lawrence and Bardem’s characters pair with a bevy of apparent haunted house movie clichés. But Aronofsky has so much more in mind.

Before long, an inscrutable couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives and quickly exploits their hosts’ hospitality, making themselves far too much at home. The symbolism is heavy, but unlike “Black Swan,” not explicit. The most obvious read – that Lawrence represents Mother Earth, Bardem the Godhead, Harris and Pfeiffer Adam and Eve – is not necessarily the right one, with the screenplay adeptly leaving itself open to all manners of interpretation. Eventually, the tension between the homeowners over their wildly presumptuous houseguests culminates in one of the most surreal, agitating dinner parties in movie history.

And that’s just the halfway point.

The second half of “mother!” is one for the record books, with Aronofsky characteristically swinging out of his shoes. Only this time, he makes square contact. The pic’s third act plays like a fusion of Cary Fukunaga’s famous “True Detective” siege sequence with cues from “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling and “Don’t Look Now” director Nicolas Roeg, delivered with the kind of straight-faced mania whose aim can only be audience alienation. The filmmaker’s typically suffocating camera work and unsettling imagery work better for him than ever, begging the squeamish to sit the film out.

Although it’s absolutely not for casual moviegoers, “mother!” is mandatory viewing for anyone remotely serious about the medium. Not only does it see a celebrated filmmaker at long last make sense of his strengths and weaknesses, its third act is a staggering audiovisual experience that calls to mind the most ambitious, apocalyptic theme park ride never made. Moreover, Bardem is as angsty as ever, Lawrence comes through with a dually volatile and vulnerable performance that reminds of why she won her Oscar, and the twisted symbolism of Aronofsky’s screenplay mushroom clouds in the pic’s homestretch.

Few films have ever ramped up such visual and thematic madness with so much precision. If this sounds like your cup of ayahuasca, don’t miss out.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: September 15, 2017
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson
MPAA Rating: R (for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language)