Darren Aronofsky's newest film is one creepy mother!
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem-led cast expertly maintains suspense in thriller.
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At the core of its disturbed and pounding heart, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is an extreme horror movie with a top Hollywood cast.
Those who haunt midnight cinema will recognize familiar tropes: a remote house in the woods, a threatened woman, strange sounds and jump scares, visceral engagement with the eye, ear and mind.
Yet familiar doesn’t have to mean conventional. This is especially true of the work of writer/director Aronofsky, who drew dark out of light in such films as Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream and who made a mad allegory of the Bible’s most destructive episode with Noah.
Heading straight from TIFF to multiplexes, mother! begins as one type of movie; it concludes as something else altogether. A feeling of quiet dread at the outset, shades of Roman Polanski, inexorably proceeds toward a finale so shattering it should be marketed using that old B-movie horror gimmick about nobody being admitted in the last 20 minutes.
There should at least be a warning that viewers will bear witness to truly awful things. The filmmaker’s caution that it’s all meant as an allegory about creation and the artistic impulse will be small comfort to the squeamish.
It begins, following some ominous foreshadowing, with a scene of evident tranquility. A Victorian Gothic mansion deep in unknown woods, difficult to access by road and limited to landline telephone access, is the new home of a recently wed couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.
She busies herself with renovating and painting, trying her best to make a home that’s also a refuge for her husband. He’s a famous poet, fighting writer’s block, and he needs fresh air and contemplative space. A few terse exchanges can’t disguise the fact these two are devoted to each other and make a good match, despite their 20-year age gap.
A ripple on calm waters occurs when a stranger (Ed Harris) arrives at the door one night. He has mistaken the place for a B&B, but he’s a friendly chap and he’s come a long way, so the husband insists that the traveller stay. The wife has misgivings about inviting strangers into her home, but the husband acts like he’s found his new best friend.
The wife’s doubts grow stronger when a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up the next day, claiming a connection to the earlier stranger. These visitors aren’t shy about making themselves at home and expressing opinions.
The husband remains every bit as welcoming, but the wife is starting to get annoyed and states her concerns to her spouse. “I didn’t think it was such a big deal,” he replies, only half apologizing.
Variations of that line will be heard again in the film, as more unexpected guests turn up, but in fact it’s a very big deal, especially when the wife suddenly gets pregnant. She just wants to be alone with her husband, who now seems to want to be with everyone else but her.
Aronofsky ratchets up the tension by degree, employing claustrophobic camerawork and a sound design that slowly turns from minimal to maximal. There’s gallows humour at work in some of the arrivals. The home’s fire alarm goes off when a flinty figure crosses the threshold and a familiar face from comedy suddenly pops up in a particularly tense moment.
The central four actors expertly maintain suspense. With the exception of Lawrence’s character, whose discomfiture is evident (her blond-streaked brown hair seems to start greying before our eyes), it’s impossible to discern what’s really going on behind all those friendly smiles.
And the wife is a puzzle all her own — why doesn’t she leave this place? There’s no easy answer to that question and no quick way to describe this film, which transfixes the mind while repelling the senses.
You can’t unsee this stuff — and you might well wish you could.
In Focus: Richard Crouse