Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! makes me regret ever using “feverish” as a term of praise. In the physical world, a fever is valuable — though unpleasant — in driving out infection, and applied to art it can suggest a work that has crossed the blood-brain barrier and taken hold of a viewer’s responses. This is plainly Aronofsky’s aim: not so much to entertain as to infect. In his debut, Pi, he put the protagonist’s obsession with that circumferential constant into dizzying visual and aural swirls. In Requiem for a Dream, he induced the jittery highs and desolate lows of speed and heroin. The Wrestler simulated a masochistic orgy, the title character’s physical pain a road to ecstatic oneness with the universe. Black Swan evoked an artist’s switchback ride to madness — and self-immolation. Except for his loopy swoon-song, The Fountain, Aronofsky has hit all his marks, achieving everything he has set out to do — no small feat. But once he has his premises, he doesn’t develop them, either because he doesn’t know that’s required or he thinks that it would hobble his transcendentalist objectives. His entire dramatic strategy is escalation. A character who begins mildly delirious will become rather delirious, utterly delirious, ultradelirious, and then burst into flames. The end is like the beginning, only much, much more so.
I’d imagined that the exclamation point in Mother! was merely to distinguish it from Albert Brooks’s 1996 similarly titled comedy and Bong Joon-ho’s 2009 melodrama. But by rights it should have more exclamation points, a hundred even. Every frame is an exclamation point. It begins with its heroine’s immolation: We see her flesh a-bubble and eyes a-boil as flames erupt around her. Is it a dream or a vision of the future? Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes to find herself alone in bed in her country manse, her husband, HIM (Javier Bardem), having gone for a walk. He says he wants to clear his head and “get his creative juices flowing.” HIM’s a writer, you see, and in movies it’s rare that women who marry writers end up anywhere you’d want to be. We learn that HIM had lost everything (Work? Spouse? Family?) in an inferno, from which a transparent rock or crystal was born, the remnant of his artistic and personal trauma. (If that sounds vague, it plays even more inscrutably.) Mother sees her job in life as creating a paradise for HIM to live and work.
Only Spanish punctuation can do Lawrence justice: She is ¡acting! onscreen in nearly every shot, the camera hugging her face or trailing behind her; she looks young, smooth, newly hatched, and desperately in synch with the hyperbolic images and sounds that surround her. The house is an objective correlative: Mother, evidently in the early stages of pregnancy, presses her palms against walls, which palpate and show a beating embryonic heart. Her discomfort is always in the foreground, especially with the arrival of the alarmingly lean “Man” (Ed Harris) who identifies himself as a doctor and promptly invades her space with unctuous insinuations, incessant smoking, and a violent cough. He is soon joined by “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is even more invasive, snooping around HIM’s sacred writing study, fingering that precious rock, and jumping Man’s bones. Neither the Man nor the Woman seem to regard Mother as an autonomous human being. She is identified as the “inspiration.”
To the two-thirds mark, Mother! feels like a theater piece tricked out with Gothic horror effects — a Pinter parlor-squirm number or Albee’s A Delicate Balance plus bumps and spooky floorboard creaks. The Polanski Rosemary’s Baby influence is in there, too, obviously, with its diabolical menagerie focused on a woman’s swelling uterus. But most of the dialogue and effects are clunky, repetitive, second-rate. A minute or so of David Lynch’s latest Twin Peaks series has more irrational menace. For all its feverish activity, Mother! feels static.
Straitjacketed by a studio when he made Noah, Aronofsky attempts to make up for it with a climactic deluge, first with the arrival of Man and Woman’s sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) doing an accelerated Cain-and-Abel routine, then with what seems like the entire animal kingdom in crazed human form. This ark is like the Marx Brothers’ stateroom, only without the laughs. The creepy Stephen McHattie shows up, then Kristen Wiig in a manic reenactment of her The Martian publicist, then …
And here I must be careful. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re hypersensitive to spoilers — although there’s really no way to consider Mother! as a whole without addressing its true themes. For all the Rosemary’s Baby similarities, Mother! is not, in fact, an extended pregnancy metaphor. No, it’s something far more self-centered — an artist’s auto-critique. The creator of Black Swan has set out to dramatize the essential sadism of a filmmaker whose characters (and performers) sail to hell on his creative juices.
The movie works on its own benighted terms: Like Black Swan, it’s a tour de force. I respected Black Swan, though, because it made the case — however ludicrous and questionable — that the greatest performing comes at a personal cost. Mother!, on the other hand, is grandiose and self-aggrandizing. It puts Jennifer Lawrence through the mill for no purpose except nurturing a strain of masochism of which she has been blessedly free. She’s a tough, funny, and smart actress. I’d hate to think of her as just another doll for a director to torture.
*A version of this article appears in the September 18, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.