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Darren Aronofsky’s bold ‘Mother!’ is one of 2017’s best films

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Jennifer Lawrence freaks out in Mother!
Photo: Paramount / Courtesy

Four and a half stars

Mother! Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.

Even by the manic standards of Darren Aronofsky—director of such exercises in escalating insanity as Pi, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan—the emphatically titled Mother! constitutes one hell of a freakout. Set entirely in a rustic house seemingly located in the middle of nowhere, the film stars Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a pointedly unnamed married couple who, at first, are perfectly content in each other’s company. He’s a poet who’s been suffering from writer’s block; she’s focusing most of her energy on renovating the house, which had previously burned to the ground.

A knock on the door disturbs their cozy cocoon, though the poet seems unusually eager to welcome this stranger (Ed Harris), inviting him to stay the night. Soon, the couple is also hosting the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, giving her juiciest performance in years) and their two adult sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson). Strange noises are heard, and bizarre visions appear. The woman watches, aghast, as this family of interlopers casually takes over the house, treating her with insolence bordering on contempt. No sooner does she manage to get them out than she discovers that she’s pregnant. And that’s when things really get weird …

Aronofsky isn’t striving for subtlety here—Mother! is pure metaphor, and any viewer with some basic biblical knowledge will tumble to what’s going on before the film is half over. For all its blatant allusions to the Pentateuch, though, this stark, crazed morality play is remarkably open to interpretation. The ordeal suffered by Lawrence’s character mirrors the story of creation, but it can also credibly be read as a lecture on the dangers of climate change, or as an exposé of the hassles involved in dating a celebrity, or (most profitably) as a treatise on the cannibalistic, egocentric nature of artistic creation.

Really, it doesn’t much matter which theory you favor, as the movie’s main attraction is its deranged chutzpah. What initially appears to be a vaguely creepy chamber drama gradually builds and builds and builds until it achieves a level of frenetic chaos that almost beggars belief—all without ever leaving the house. Aronofsky keeps the camera close and tight on Lawrence, who gives a performance unlike anything she’s ever done before; she’s not playing a human being so much as an idea (literally, in one interpretation), and delivers expressionistic embodiments of beatitude, then consternation, then fury. Viewers who go into Mother! expecting a traditional, psychologically plausible narrative will wind up feeling cheated, even trolled, as it slowly metamorphoses into an unrepentant art film. The adventurous, however, will ride this demented whirlwind with whoops of glee. It’s as boldly unhinged as any studio film in recent memory.

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