"What's happening?" Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed character asks at one point during the final stretch of mother! It's a good question. Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream) has kept his latest project shrouded in complete secrecy -- or as much secrecy is possible, considering it is a studio film starring one of the most famous and talk show-friendly actresses in Hollywood.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter. I could tell you scene-by-scene exactly what happens in mother! and you would not be spoiled. Because I saw the movie, and I don’t know exactly what happened. And though mother! is now in theaters, I will do my best to go light on major spoilers.
The film begins with the image of a woman engulfed in flames, one single tear falling from her eye. "mother" (intentionally lowercased) appears onscreen, followed, with effect, by the "!." As the title fades away, the exclamation point lingers onscreen -- effectively punctuating every scene to follow (i.e. Put a mental exclamation point after every, single sentence I write in this story and that would be about the experience of viewing mother! I won't, for readability's sake.)
Jennifer Lawrence plays a housewife, introverted and observational in a way we've not yet seen the actress, who is married to an acclaimed poet (Javier Bardem) crippled by writer’s block. The couple lives in an idyllic rural manse, seemingly far removed from society and which Lawrence's character has meticulously restored, room-by-room, after it burned down and Bardem’s character, we're vaguely told, "lost everything." (The 20-year age difference between the two is addressed away in a single line: "Your wife? I thought it was your daughter...")
One evening, a strange man (Ed Harris) shows up on their doorstep under ill-defined pretenses -- he thought the house was a bed and breakfast, he says -- but is invited to stay by Bardem. The next day, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, unannounced, and promptly makes herself at home.
If the movie has been advertised as a happy couple whose lives are plunged into madness upon the arrival of a mysterious couple, that’s not quite right. Mother and Him (as Lawrence and Bardem are billed in the end credits) begin their story at a place of tension, though the madness does come. The first half of the story plays like a Gothic parlour piece, all simmering tension and concealed glances as Mother accommodates the increasingly intrusive Man and Woman (Harris and Pfeiffer). Pfeiffer, in particular, provides the film with a jolt of energy, sensual and antagonizing, and scenes that have her playing opposite Lawrence are of the best in mother!
And then the stranger's twin sons (brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) arrive, and then more unexpected houseguests arrive, and then and then and then, until Mother's home is teeming with people and it becomes almost comical how much these outsiders invade the couple's life. (Get! Off! Her! Sink!) It’s a riff on a home invasion thriller, though everyone arrives in perfectly polite fashion.
All the while, there is the intrigue of Mother’s home itself (with which she has a sort of symbiotic relationship) and the banging and clanging that so often takes place right off-screen. You can see the influence of horror films like The Exorcist and Psycho and inevitable comparisons to The Strangers or a prestigious riff on American Horror Story will be apt. But again, that is just part of mother!
"I thought the home invasion movie was very interesting, because everyone relates to having a bad guest who won't get out of the house when the parties over," Aronofsky told ET. "So, I knew turning that into a nightmare would be an interesting place to start. Then there was this bigger idea going on of thinking about our planet [Earth] as our home and taking the spirit of that home, Mother Nature, and sticking her in one house and seeing how all these uninvited guests start to treat her."
That bigger idea is mostly confined to the second half of the movie, which hasn't been a focus in the advertising. (Harris and Pfeiffer's storyline ultimately only makes up a small percentage of the final film.) Viewing mother! retroactively after seeing the latter half, it is downright Biblical. Lawrence is Mother Earth. Bardem's Him is God. (Note the capitalization.) Their home, which Mother aspires to make a "paradise," is Eden. Harris is Adam, Pfeiffer is Eve, their feuding sons are Cain and Abel. The movie even has its own flood. In structure, at least, this is a brief history of...everything: Humankind, religion, politics, war. Watching it unfold becomes so unbelievably insane -- and escalates so quickly getting there -- that when gunshots ring out and corpses pile up and houseguests turn to the occult and cannibalization and then Kristen Wiig pops up, you have to laugh.
"It's a weird movie," Aronofsky acknowledges. "You go into it thinking you're watching one type of movie and it shifts into another type of movie. And then it keeps changing, and by the end, hopefully you're shaken and deeply moved."
Shaken is all but guaranteed, though how deeply you are ultimately moved by mother! is personal. Lawrence is in nearly every shot, but is the movie about her? Or just happening to her -- and, thus, us? Because of the nature of what the characters allegorically represent, they feel more like broad stoke ideas than real people, so you, the viewer, aren't able to become that emotionally invested in Mother's personal plight. Not that Lawrence isn't dynamic in the role. Though playing meek, she is more committed than ever as her character is put through the horror wringer again and again and again. Actors can get a bit self-aggrandizing bragging about how deep they delved into a role, but coming out of this, it's no wonder Lawrence tore her diaphragm! I'm surprised she hasn't talked about it more.
As for what Aronofsky is attempting to say in this, it must be more than just the creation story and man's treatment of Mother Earth. (Or, mother! Earth.) At points, it may be about: The transactional relationship between artist and muse and fans and who is owed what? Social media? How society treats women? The consuming nature of love? The destructive nature of loving an artist? (That Lawrence saw Aronofsky's final film and thought, "I want to date that guy" is ...wild.) Is mother! a movie with just so much to say that it's difficult for just one message to come through? Or does it have nothing too new to say, but screams itself into existence anyway?
"There are so many different messages, so many different ways that you can read everything in the film," Lawrence, who calls the script an "assault," told ET. "I'm mostly excited about watching the arguments. I like watching the controversy. Hearing people argue over this movie is just music to our ears, because that's why [Aronofsky] made it."
Whatever you end of thinking of mother! -- it's impossible to imagine the film won't be divisive -- it is a movie you will need to talk about. You can't leave the theater and go quietly into the night with this one. Me? I haven't stopped thinking about it since I saw it, worming its way into my brain like a strange Ed Harris in the night and making itself at home in my subconscious. (I can't remember the last time a movie did that.) So...let's discuss.