Jennifer Lawrence busies herself restoring her poet husband Javier Bardem’s secluded country home after a fire while he battles with writer’s block. But distractions abound: first orthopaedic surgeon Ed Harris turns up late one evening thinking it’s a B&B and, much to Lawrence’s chagrin, Bardem invites him to stay. The next morning his flirtatious wife Pfeiffer shows up and stomps about the place like she owns it. She too is invited to stay. Then their warring sons, Domhnall and Brian Gleeson, bang on the door…
It’s important to stop there as there’s no real cut-off point for a synopsis: mother! is a slow burning psychological horror/thriller that never stops turning the screw. To borrow a cliché, the film perfectly mimics being trapped in a surreal dream where control and understanding are elusive while everyone else accepts the bizarre happenings as ordinary. But this is it exactly. Lawrence can’t quite grasp what’s going on, who these people are or what they want, and is increasingly frustrated with Bardem’s willingness to roll with whatever fresh hell comes through the front door next. No listens to her concerns – she’s ignored, insulted, patronised, a prisoner (she never leaves the house, even resisting Bardem’s pleas to step onto the veranda).
Aronofsky delights in second guessing the audience’s expectations. Is Harris and Pfeiffer a middle-aged version of the teens in Funny Games? What is with the jewel that takes pride of place on the mantelpiece in Bardem’s study? There’s something eerie about recently plastered wall in the gothic cellar. What was that thing Pfeiffer flushed in the toilet? And what of that anaemic yellow medicine Lawrence (in a career best performance) takes when she gets her dizzy spells. Cooking everything to a heady brew, Aronofsky only takes a momentary breather when the story reaches a new plateau of weirdness, taking time to establish the latest oddball scenario as the new reality, before elevating the strangeness all over again. It takes a serious skill to sustain this level of uneasiness and rising tension for two hours.
It’s all designed to be deliberately unsettling with the geography of the house itself difficult to pin down, the everyday noises (floorboards creak, fire alarms wail, doors slam) in place of a soundtrack ramps up the tension, and the director plays around with time, skipping forward minutes, hours, months. It can at times, especially as the third act goes off the rails, feels as if Aronofsky has both lost control and is the confident ringmaster in this chaotic circus as metaphors for a fear of parenthood, the cult of celebrity and (take your pick) jostle for position.
Delightfully odd, deeply unsettling, and thoroughly engaging, mother! is one of the films of the year.