everything you need to know about darren aronofsky’s mother!

The Black Swan director went on a broody, batshit crazy descent into hell with J-Law and Michelle Pfeiffer in tow. Here’s what you need to know -- spoiler-free.

by Douglas Greenwood
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10 September 2017, 4:55am

still from mother!

Whether he's asking Natalie Portman to master ballet or turning Mickey Rourke into an ageing wrestling icon, director Darren Aronofsky has an obsession with putting his protagonists through hell.

When we caught wind of his latest feature, mother! (yep, lowercase 'M' and the exclamation point are obligatory), we were wondering where that hell might stem from. After all, everything seemed so simple: a couple -- Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem -- living a tranquil existence in a rural home with nobody nearby. Two years later, and with the film premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival last night, we feel a little stupid for having ever doubted it.

mother! is a blistering, inspired psycho-horror that stupefies its audience with cattle prod effectiveness. It's oppressive, claustrophobic, relentless and, above all, Aronofsky's most fearless film to date. Ahead of its release worldwide later this month, we unpack the controversial and divisive new title from one of America's celebrated modern auteurs.

It was shrouded in secrecy (at Aronofsky's request)
Whenever a plot line for a Darren Aronofsky film sounds all too simple, be sure to prepare yourself for something a thousand times more crazy than you may have originally expected. The plot line for mother! could have come straight from a Hollywood director trying his hand at horror: a couple, living in solitude in their country home, have their peaceful existence upended when two strangers turn up at their door. For a while, this was all we knew about the film with the trickle-like casting announcements of J-Law, Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer and then, finally, comedy queen Kristen Wiig this spring. The pieces didn't fit -- starry casts from Hollywood, a serene-sounding plot -- we should have known that Aronofsky was up to something.

Set entirely in one house, it unravels at a discomforting pace
All of that pent up secrecy and filmmaking fury that Aronofsky has been holding on to unravels at an exquisite pace as soon as mother! kicks off. It's hard to keep people guessing in Hollywood, considering script leaks and set photos are commonplace, but there's one element of mother! that has permitted it to be a rare piece of movie mystique for so long: every scene in the film takes place within the four walls of the main character's home, and Lawrence's character never ventures outside. Instead, everybody -- and we mean everybody -- comes to them.

And twists into something sinister from the beginning
The twists kick off with a late night knock at the door. A doctor, played by Ed Harris, who claims to be new in town has stumbled upon the house, having mistaken it for a bed and breakfast. From the first encounter, things don't seem to add up. He's welcomed with open arms by Bardem's character, a poet desperately seeking change to help his creative process, much to the confusion of his wife. The doctor is told to stay the night. The next morning, his wife arrives with an overnight bag too.

It often feels like a home invasion thriller from a distant nightmare, one in which certain elements are designed to make you feel uneasy, such as the strange ignorance of those who arrive, constantly dismissing Lawrence's character although it's her house they've ventured into. It's worth stating that no character in mother!'s main cast has a real name: Jennifer Lawrence is credited as Mother, Javier Bardem is HIM, Michelle Pfeiffer is Woman and Ed Harris is Man. This adds to the film's nightmarish atmosphere. All of these characters are there, but they all feel unsettlingly intangible, as if your hands would go right through them should you try to make contact.

It divided the critics in Venice
Venice is usually known for being fairly astute in terms of audience reaction -- Cannes is where the vocal haters belong -- but as the credits rolled on Aronofsky's mother!, the critics were hellbent on having their thoughts heard. In equal measures, many cheered and applauded, while others booed and heckled. It was a sentiment that transferred over to the film's first public screening at the festival too, leading the audience to turn the last 10 minutes of the film into a chorus of heckle-filled mayhem with rare yelps of glee and whistles in between. We've never seen anything quite like it.

Jennifer Lawrence delivers another Oscar-worthy performance
Following her award-winning turns in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, everybody's favourite American star gives us a rousing, visceral and passionate performance as mother!'s protagonist. In fact, she seems to be the only voice of reason in a world crammed with boiling insanity and irrational behaviour. Aronofsky's script puts her through searingly hot and stressful hell, but she never comes close to delivering a hyperbolic, hysterical performance. It's pretty impressive when you see what she's up against: every scene in the film either focuses on her character, or is shot from her perspective. Much like how we see her in real life, mother! is Jennifer Lawrence's world; the rest of us are merely living in it.

And Michelle Pfeiffer kills it too.
mother! is a film of two very distinct halves, but the turning point that separates them is too pivotal to the plot to reveal here. The first half, comprised of four main characters, is a little more sinister and subdued than the incendiary derangement that follows it. The film builds on you steadily, but things are definitely made much weirder thanks to Michelle Pfeiffer's excellent effort as 'Woman' in the first part. Her role in the film is similar to that of Mila Kunis' character Lily in Black Swan: she's a coercive, vindictive figure who seems desperate to deconstruct the personality of a woman she doesn't know, scratching away at her victim's sanity as she goes.

But it's the antithesis of 'Oscar bait'
Film festivals tend to be hotbeds of awards buzzy titles; last year, films like La La Land and Jackie (which was produced by Aronofsky, no less) bowed at Venice much like mother! did. But there's something about this wildly uncomfortable and invasive drama that we feel was never made with awards season in mind. Instead, Aronofsky, his cast and production team have indelibly put vision before palatability. There are plenty of scenes of gratuitous violence in the film that help detach it from the glamorous Oscar race (Hollywood is a fan of romanticism, of course), but its divisiveness among audiences and critics mean that it has a much better chance of being seen as a cult movie in the years to come. That being said, we wouldn't be surprised if there was a little love for it. Jennifer Lawrence should at least grab a nomination for her excellent turn, while technically, the film's breathtaking sound design -- formed of ear-ringing smashed glass and bells -- does deserve some recognition for creating nerve-shredding tension. Whether or not the Academy will have the balls to give it any more creative nods, we'll have to wait and see. It's certainly a left field decision, but who wants a glitzy awards season in Hollywood without a little blood and fear?