Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Mother! is that it is completely unique. The number of jump-scares in its exhausting two-hour run-time can be counted on one hand, and yet Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature is without a doubt the most distressing and uncomfortable major release in recent memory.
The film throws out the rule book that recent horror offerings have been following to the letter, and in doing so creates an alien environment that even die-hard fans of the genre will struggle to navigate.
Mother! places us firmly in the shoes of its nameless protagonist played by Jennifer Lawrence, a shy and timid young woman living in a large house with her emotionally distant husband. Rather than being detached observers of her increasingly morbid plight, there is a strange feeling that this character is almost an extension of ourselves.
The near-constant use of close-up on Lawrence’s face is one cause of this sensation, with her every micro-expression captured in crystal clarity. It isn’t long before a claustrophobic connection feels established between our mind and hers, her thoughts and feelings echoed in our own heads as events begin to slowly escalate.
The sound design also plays a key role in this manner. Every single light footstep, creaking floorboard and clinking teacup is not just heard, but amped up to the highest possible levels. In the absence of any orchestral score, these simple sounds develop a threatening quality which instills a feeling of continuous apprehension, while also establishing an otherworldly feel to the film’s setting.
Indeed, while the horror genre is no stranger to large and isolated houses, Mother! takes this familiar backdrop and turns it on its head. Seemingly located outside of time, with a minimal amount of modern technology and few references to civilised society, the house itself develops a fully-realised identity which adds to the overwhelming feeling of violation in the devastating third act.
The film is undoubtedly at its strongest when exploiting this intimate link between the protagonist, the setting and the audience, and as such the first half is significantly stronger than the second. Mother! begins with a small-scale plot which is frightening in subtle ways that have rarely been explored prior. The horror sprouts from how believable these early scenes are, featuring an element of the mundane which is later paired with a dream-like helplessness. Comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby are not entirely unfounded, but equally the film is far more than a mere retread.
Michelle Pfeiffer is a consistent stand-out throughout the first act, an unwanted visitor at the house alongside her husband, played by Ed Harris. Her character is a rare modern example of a truly nuanced villain in the horror genre, and her presence never fails to electrify a scene. She even manages to steal some away from Lawrence, no small feat as the Hunger Games actress gives her best performance in many years, reminding the world what she is capable of after taking on some disappointing roles.
The problem arises in the second half, which is such an extreme escalation from the first that it feels very much like a different film altogether. While there are definitely still moments of personal psychological terror, the aforementioned intimacy is largely dropped in favour of an overwhelming presentation of surrealist imagery.
This experience is undoubtedly a visual spectacle and a genuine achievement of direction, but that doesn’t prevent large sections of it feeling overindulgent. Consequently, it is at this point that Mother! begins to drag, the aforementioned link between audience and protagonist ultimately shattered amongst the chaos.
The lack of a conventional plot doesn’t help matters, and in the absence of any exposition, piecing together the sparse information becomes a mentally draining task. Things do come together again for a mostly-satisfying finale, although don’t expect to have all or even any of your questions answered.
For better or worse, when the credits start rolling you’ll be ready for either a lie down or a drink of something strong. That isn’t exactly a recommendation, but equally it’s one of the film’s most endearing attributes.
Indeed, in spite of its shortcomings, Mother! reveals Hollywood’s recent flock of ‘horror’ films to be completely fraudulent. Rather than being easily brushed off immediately after stepping out of the cinema, it takes root inside your mind and refuses to be forgotten. Frankly, a haunting from Pennywise the Clown would feel like getting off easy if the alternative was being dropped into Mother!‘s climactic third act.
Mother! is certainly rough around the edges, but regardless deserves a lot of credit for all that it does get right. This is a film that will distress you, upset you and frustrate you in equal measure, undoubtedly an uncomfortable experience from start to finish. As a result, it would be inaccurate to describe Mother! as enjoyable, but the visceral response it evokes should still be celebrated, particularly in an age where mainstream horror has been largely toothless and ineffective.