Darren Aronofsky's latest polarizing film mother! is difficult to recommend, though explaining why it will be poorly received by so many gives away much of the delight in seeing an idiosyncratic director at his most unorthodox. Divisive in ways few mainstream films aspire to be in both its maximalist content and claustrophobic direction, mother! shows its cards early in the first act and thereafter fully commits to its mythmaking, at times daring its audience to walk out from repulsion or ridicule. It's a darkly funny, grueling genre mashup that has some of the densest—and most obvious—allegorical imagery seen in a major theater, a Divine Comedy that excises Paradiso. That religiously literate viewers should be attuned most closely to its primary subtext (there are at least three layers of symbolism intertwined) is its greatest irony: getting on board is easier but surviving the journey is another matter entirely. mother! is a bizarre film to experience, at times thuddingly blunt but explosively unhinged in the second part of its diptych. (Even its title is a multi-layered joke for perceptive audiences). I alternately chuckled and grimaced throughout, and walking out of the theater my first remark to my wife was "Well, it certainly went there."
And I have no idea if I like it, but I certainly admire its audacity.
There is a straightforward line of mirrored duality running throughout Aronofsky's oeuvre—artists and their art, selfishness and love, creation and destruction, light and darkness—and in this, mother! proceeds nicely from his previous work. A narcissistic poet (Javier Bardem) and his longsuffering, emotionally put upon wife (Jennifer Lawrence) are both believable and archetypal. Living in an old, isolated house while Bardem tries to pass his writer's block and Lawrence renovates and restores the home's interior, the couple is interrupted by a doctor (Ed Harris) who mistakes their house for a hotel. He's promptly invited to spend the night and the next morning marks the late arrival of his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is oddly intrusive and antagonistic towards the homeowners. Throughout, Aronofsky keeps Lawrence framed in disconcertingly tight focus, leaving the audience unsettled as a fairly ordinary situation becomes much less so.
It's hard to overstate just how bonkers this film gets, although there is considerable pleasure to be found in unlocking its narrative early and anticipating where Aronofsky's feverish vision travels. Even then there is quite a bit of room for the unexpected, in the gnostic version of the story being told and the kitchen sink's worth of mythology scattered throughout, including the kitchen sink itself. Aronofsky is in full control of his material here; a closing laugh in the end credits is a Pilgrim's Progress worth of extras listed, each identified by a morality play role: Penitent, Fool, Defiler. As the plot pieces move and the players' roles come into focus, unease turns into anxiety and then dread. But the film's escalation in the second half does little to prepare its audience for its resolution, which is both jaw-dropping and—perhaps—nearly cathartic in its necessity. If you're going to commit, then you had better go all of the way.