Film Review: Hell is Other People — Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”

Chaos threatens to usurp the plot, but Jennifer Lawrence’s luminous performance keeps the story, such as it is, grounded with her reactions and desperate struggle to carry on.

mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Jennifer Lawrence in "mother!"

Jennifer Lawrence in “mother!”

By Peg Aloi

As with many of his other films, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! teems with sublime metaphors. The imagery is lush and dreamy, as well as brutal and horrific. It seems to be a love story…or maybe an erotic thriller…or perhaps an ethereal whodunit. But really, the story is cosmological in scope, the domestic setting cleverly pedestrian. The narrative feels straightforward at times: a simple portrayal of unpredictable human behavior that gradually and then quickly goes out of control. All hell literally breaks loose; the glass shatters, blood is spilt, and shrieking shakes the rafters. It becomes clear that something enormous is at stake.

We know we’ll be going to a place beyond a normal narrative when the films begins with a close-up image of a woman’s face being licked with flames. It is Jennifer Lawrence, the “mother” of the title. Then we see Javier Bardem, smiling, placing an object that looks like a smooth crystal into a small wire holder on a shelf. He smiles, and the crystal seems to radiate light outwards that transforms a decrepit house into a clean, renewed space. A female form in a bed materializes out of a lump of charred ashes. Lawrence reaches out her arm to the bare space in the bed beside her, says “Baby?” and rises to look for her husband. Then we see the sprawling interiors of a sturdy old house in various stages of restoration. Javier is a poet, struggling to work and lazily allowing his loving (and much younger) wife to take care of him, when she’s not painstakingly plastering walls.

Neither of these characters has a name; nor does the man who knocks on the door, an orthopedic surgeon (Ed Harris) who seems to have simply stumbled on the house (which is in a remote location surrounded by meadows and trees), and who needs a place to stay. Lawrence is put out that her hubby invites this stranger to stay, but she prepares food, makes the bed, and cleans the bathroom like a good little wifey. Harris has a nasty wracking cough and smokes in the house despite being asked not to. Soon the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives: she drinks heavily, engages Lawrence in inappropriately personal conversations, leaves a mess everywhere, and seems to be taunting her hostess with her smoldering sophistication. Soon after, the couples’ two sons arrive (Brian and Domhnaill Gleeson), and a family squabble turns violent. An impromptu wake happens, with more strangers arriving, bringing dishes to pass and acting like they’re at a huge party. These people are mostly horrible; loud, boorish, selfish, destructive. As the evening progresses, things intensify and Jennifer is pushed to a breaking point. She and Javier renew their physical intimacy, and she becomes pregnant with their first child, inspiring him to return to writing poetry.

Time passes. Several months pregnant, Lawrence’s comfortable haven is once again invaded when Bardem’s book is finished. She once again has to show the door to horrible strangers who arrive uninvited. Later, heavily pregnant and glowing, serene Jennifer prepares a feast for her loving husband, whose book of verse has sold well. Suddenly, the house is once again set upon by boorish guests; but this time they are fans of the poet’s work, sycophants and followers, a zealous, beatific cult. Soon enough, the hordes of people escalate past rudeness to brutality. It’s hard to imagine how far this will go, but suffice it to say that matters progress to an almost unwatchable extreme.

It may seem at times that the chaos threatens to usurp the plot, but Lawrence’s luminous performance keeps the story, such as it is, grounded with her reactions and desperate struggle to carry on. She has shown herself to be an actress of depth and phenomenal talent, but her earthy beauty is in part what makes this role so captivating. Bardem is a bit more complex: a sensitive, loving husband one moment, a creepy narcissist the next. The casting of Harris and Pfeiffer is brilliant: two veterans still in their prime, they generate a kind of world-weary wisdom perfect for their roles. I loved the Gleeson brothers also (Domhnaill is always riveting to watch), and the dozens of cameos and small roles (given unusual but revealing names in the end credits) fill in the action with finesse and snippets of questionable humanity.

The message behind all these scenes of violence and depravity conveys a firm ideological stance, a moral so harrowingly simple in its truth that, once revealed, it nearly knocked me out of my seat. (Then again, we’re all a bit jumpy these days, aren’t we?) Perhaps not all viewers will find the experience so epiphanic. I overheard a viewer in the lobby saying to his (female) companion that he thought the film’s whole “point” was that Aronofsky “had too much money” and “took things too far.” Perhaps the wildly-graphic special effects were off-putting; and yet this same viewer thought Black Swan (another high budget picture with no small amount of special effects trickery) to be near perfect. I wondered if Black Swan‘s spectacle of women engaged in cut-throat competition tinged with sexual obsession was simply more this moviegoer’s cup of tea than mother!’s heady symbolism — delivered via a bloody apocalypse.

There is something deeply spiritual about mother! that cries out for recognition and resonance, if not meticulous analysis. The biblical parallels are obvious, but there’s a broader pagan worldview and, with it, a condemnation of monotheism and patriarchy (Do stay for the end credits, when Patti Smith explains it all for you). I found myself wondering if other female viewers will venture, as I did, a number of potential interpretations (the experience of motherhood, for example) before arriving at the singular, and terrible, explanation that felt inevitable. That is not to say that the film is necessarily better understood by women; but it calls for a sensitive and engaged viewership, one comfortable with the speculation that, if God were a woman, She’d be mightily pissed. In grand and eloquent fashion, shot through with moments of horror, mother! communicates its disturbing vision in circular, and not linear, fashion, bringing us not to an ending, but to a beginning that repeats, again and again, spiraling in on itself, life, death, rebirth, renaissance, the Eternal Return.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” has recently been moved to a new domain:

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