Perhaps I would have liked Mother! more if, earlier that week and purely by coincidence, I had not streamed The Shining. Darren Aronofsky’s film shares several crucial plot points with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Both movies have, at their centers, the blocked middle-aged writer who hopes that country life—peace, quiet, and isolation from everyone except his loved ones—might jump-start his creativity. Both have initially passive wives who must draw on previously untapped reserves of fortitude as their husband’s travails expose them to chaos and danger. And both men are unfortunate in their choice of the bucolic retreat. Kubrick’s grand hotel and Aronofsky’s Victorian dream house turn out to have histories rife with anguish and violence, and it proves hard to craft the gorgeous sentence or lyric when the walls are dripping blood. So why, when these films have so much in common, does Kubrick’s seem like a perfectly realized work of art while Aronofsky’s may strike us as hollow and sophomoric?
One answer is that Kubrick’s film has characters while Aronofsky’s only has ideas; his main characters don’t even have names. It’s difficult not to be moved and frightened by the anguish that Kubrick’s couple, Jack and Wendy (played, with brilliant nuance and great depth, by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall), feel as they witness—and are powerless to halt—Jack’s decline into homicidal mania. Of course, as Kubrick demonstrates, it’s possible to have characters and ideas; it’s a great gift of narrative art.
The first half of Mother! is enjoyable enough, if only because it’s so beautifully photographed (by Matthew Libatique) and because it dramatizes a horror regularly experienced but only rarely represented on screen, at least not since Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. That is, the nightmare of the host whose guests not only overstay their welcome but who, like unruly children, wreck the house.
Here, the peace—or the uneasy truce—being disrupted is that of a poet whom Aronofsky calls Him (Javier Bardem) and his much younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence), named Mother in the credits, who expresses her devotion by renovating the couple’s rural Victorian mansion. Only the extreme close-ups on Lawrence’s anxious face and the scenes of Bardem interrupting his frustrating literary exertions by fondling a lumpy crystal dispel the sense that we are seeing out-takes from the PBS home-renovation series This Old House. As Lawrence’s character makes the exacting choice between two shades of plaster to smear onto a wall, it’s hard not to think of the phrase “watching paint dry” as shorthand for the ultimate experience of ennui.
Happily for the audience, if not for Him and Mother, the badly-behaved guests arrive. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer introduce welcome infusions of energy, mystery, and glamor as an ailing doctor and his wife who charm and flatter their host (the doctor is a fan of the poet’s work) into inviting them to stay. Our anxiety grows, along with Mother’s, as the doctor insists on lighting up in the smoke-free house and his wife interrogates Mother about her sex life. Soon, the guests’ two grown sons show up, and, in the home earlier described as “paradise,” have a bloody fight that heavy-handedly recalls the conflict between Cain and Abel. Mother becomes pregnant, the poet begins to write again, his book comes out, and mobs of avid fans mass on his front lawn, clamoring for their idol. Just when the writers in the audience may find themselves thinking that the lucky guy is having the ideal publication experience, authorial ego and literary fandom (spoiler alert!) lead to cannibalism and apocalypse.
Mother! has generated such lively and widespread controversy that it takes a certain amount of rigorous effort to avoid reading about it before you see it. The fear is that a review may include disclosures that might dampen the thrill of the unexpected. In fact, I was unprepared for the intensity of the mayhem that erupts in the film’s last third. Even so, I wondered: Am I the only person in the theater who knows exactly where this is going, what prop, what image, and what resolution (of sorts) will appear in the final scenes? Does the promise that we will be shocked by a startling plot-turn disarm our ability—born of logic, experience, and common sense—to predict what will happen? Would viewers be confounded or intellectually stimulated by this without having been persuaded—by hype, by advance publicity, by the secrecy that shrouded the film’s première—that they will be provoked and astonished?
Responses to the film have been so divided that The New York Times took the somewhat unusual step of providing a forum for readers to express their opinions. Some objected to the level of violence against women, though one might argue that by the end, the carnage seems gender-blind. One reader called Mother! “‘Groundhog Day’ in hell.” Another remarked that the true horror was realizing how much he’d paid to see it, while others seemed to enjoy the film’s “allegory aspect,” and what a few readers seemed to enjoy most was the argument itself: the controversy that the film has generated.
My objection is that Aronofsky isn’t much interested in his characters’ complexity or humanity, but purely in his own big concepts. Mother, in Aronofsky’s view, represents Gaia, Mother Earth, threatened by God (Bardem) and his creations. “We are empathizing with Mother Nature,” the director has said, “feeling her pain and her wrath.” It’s the sort of thing that appeals to students who enjoy finding symbols in texts, who warm to Moby-Dick only after hearing, usually from a well-meaning teacher, that Melville’s white whale represents evil. Fans of the movie seem to enjoy that game, figuring out who and what symbolizes something else, something more serious and important than a struggling poet and his beleaguered wife in their fabulous fixer-upper.
“I really wanted to make this kind of allegory about Mother Nature and our place and our connection to our home,” Aronofsky told The New York Times. “And so I cast Jennifer Lawrence as that spirit and then I had this breakthrough of using, to tell the story of humanity, the stories of the Bible.” The story of humanity? One may wind up concluding that by far the most terrifying thing about Mother! is that Darren Aronofsky seems to be Hollywood’s idea of an intellectual, our own brainy, home-grown auteur.
Mother! is now in theaters.
• An earlier version of this article misidentified the relevant film by Luis Buñuel; it was The Exterminating Angel, not The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.