Style over substance in arty horror flick
Mother! is an elaborate and fascinating mishmash. Or maybe a maniacally inventive and stylish dud, an art film variously disguised as a horror film, a psychodrama, a revisionist myth for our times, an allegory of apocalypse. Or maybe a dream within a nightmare within a dream.
Or, yes, maybe a little bit of all of the above, but not quite fully invested in any of them. There’s been a good deal of talk about these matters in the press, including diverse observations from the director (Darren Aronofsky) and his lead actors (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem), and the critics’ assessments have been wildly divided.
Now that I’ve actually seen the film locally, I can tell you that I don’t see my way clear to any grand or compelling conclusions about the mysteries, puzzles and lessons of Mother! But I will say that it’s something that I wanted very much to see, for a variety of reasons, and while I have no regrets on those accounts, it’s not a movie that I can recommend with any real enthusiasm.
In any event, here are the specifics: A poet (Bardem) lives in a large and remote house with his young wife (Lawrence). He’s struggling with a follow-up to his first book’s success; she spends her days painting the interior of their home that is a restored replica of a house destroyed in a fire. She seems prone to brief, haunting visions as she works inside the house.
Things get considerably more weird and complex when a peculiar stranger (Ed Harris) comes to their door seeking a room for the night. The young wife is wary, but the poet welcomes the stranger with increasingly reckless enthusiasm, first as a guest and soon after as a semi-permanent resident. The stranger, it turns out, is a fan of the poet’s work; and when his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up unannounced, she takes up a contentious but semi-permanent residency herself.
There’s plenty of spooky tension just with that increasingly bizarre foursome, but the weirdness is just getting started. Inside the house the hallucinatory visions become more and more extravagant and disturbing, and the influx of uninvited visitors escalates toward something like an epidemic of insanity.
Much of the story centers on the young wife’s point of view, and the semi-surreal disruptions of the narrative play an increasingly provocative role in the characterizations of the wife and the poet in particular, and several of the others as well. An aura of dream and fantasy seems to point to psychological depths that might also have spiritual implications.
The preceding risks making Mother! sound more interesting than it really is, and so I hasten to add that while Aronosky’s film deserves high marks for technical daring and unorthodox perspectives, the overall impression it makes is more that of a brash and spectacular set of cinematic exercises than any heartfelt exploration of motherhood, creativity, spiritual questing, the confines of human consciousness, etc.