Not long after I saw mother! at an early morning screening at the Toronto Film Festival this week, I ran into Christopher Nolan at his Dunkirk event and he was asking which movies I had seen, particularly curious about Darren Aronofsky’s. “I hear it is one of those movies you either love or hate,” he said. I replied that I actually loved and hated it.We both agreed maybe that is what a great movie should be.

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Actually it was entirely appropriate I saw this film on a Sunday morning when more sane people are probably in church. Aronofsky’s movies flirt with more religious imagery than anybody else’s these days. Actually, it wouldn’t be a bad move to bus the faith-based crowd in to see this as they will likely appreciate those aspects of it as much as anyone, even if on the surface it is not a religious experience at all.

As I say in my video review above, I am not exactly sure what the surrealistic mother! is supposed to be, but it doesn’t really matter, because this is the rare major studio movie that keeps evolving in my head days after I saw it — and damn Aronofsky I can’t seem to get it out of there. At its simplest level, mother! is about a newly married, childless couple: Jennifer Lawrence, known only in the credits as “mother,” and Javier Bardem, referred to as “HIM”, a poet with writers block. She dotes around the large, Victorian-like creaky house seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a fixer-upper she seems determined to fix up. It is the perfect setting for a horror film, and that seems to be the way Paramount is selling it in ads that cleverly evoke 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby.  

I can certainly see the comparisons, particularly in the characters Lawrence and Bardem play, as well as supporting actors Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, who turn up near the beginning setting the tumultuous events in motion. But Polanski had his limits with Rosemary’s Baby, while Aronofsky is taking this all to the extreme. A horror movie in the traditional sense this is most assuredly not.

Storywise, Harris knocks on the door one day apparently mistaking it for a B&B, but Bardem invites him to stay over anyway, much to the chagrin of Lawrence who is baffled as to why they suddenly have a sleepover guest. The next day Harris’ wife (Pfeiffer) unexpectedly shows up and immediately gets bitchy with mother, questioning her sexual habits and lack of a child. Soon their twin boys are in the mix (who could be stand-ins for Cain and Abel if you want to interpret this film biblically) and the beginnings of hell break loose as their escalating fight soon destroys part of the kitchen, and flooding and death occurs.

Many other strangers converge upon the house as mother’s living nightmare keeps careening out of control, until it doesn’t. But then it seems to happen all over again, more weirdness. Bardem suddenly finds the words to make him an instant prophet with hundreds of followers showing up at his doorstep in almost cult-like fashion. This leads to a bacchanal of epic proportions as the house and its occupants experience an event that indicates the end of humanity. Or not.

In part this all seems to be a requiem for one of Aronofsky’s dreams. You could certainly say there are film influences here, but if so it is the discreet horror of our times wrapped up in a package that has echoes of Fellini and Bunuel and Hitchcock and Polanski, but mostly Aronofsky who is a one-of-a-kind director known for films like The Wrestler, Black Swan and Noah. 

This one will be his most polarizing ever as it may initially draw an audience of horror fans who will react in disgust that this is not easily and predictably digestible genre stuff with Lawrence in a damsel in distress mode in a haunted house. Far from it, and those who get it, or at least want to get it, will turn this into some sort of cult classic to be revisited and argued about often. Lawrence is the soul of it all, and Matthew Libatique’s camera never leaves her face which is a good thing since she is our tour guide through this madness. It is a different kind of role that we have seen her do before, a character for which there is no silver lining, at least in Aronofsky’s playbook of this hell on earth.

Bardem, Pfeiffer and Harris know how to deliver the clipped Albee-like dialogue their writer-director has given them with just the right rhythms to make this thing unfold credibly, until it builds to a crescendo where it all comes crashing down. Love it? Hate it? You won’t soon forget it or be able to erase its images. Damn, Aronofsky.

Do you plan see mother!? Let us know what you think.