“Mother!” is not the movie you’re expecting it to be – the marketing is leading you astray. If you’re anticipating a rehash of “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Strangers,” then you’ll end up getting your metaphorical socks knocked off.
For viewers of the 21st century, a lot of what we see in film is based heavily on the surface-level text, but does carry sub-textual meanings for those who wish to consider what’s going on beneath the surface. In “Mother!,” this is completely reversed: the story lives in subtext and allegory. The surface text is an effective horror thriller, but it gains so much more significance and satisfying sense of discovery once you start to peel back the layers.
Some of the story does rely on old horror story beats to achieve its goals. There is, of course, an older, slightly unsettling man, a young ingénue, and a creepy house with a tragedy. It incorporates more modern fears to effectively scare today’s audience. While unexpected friendly visitors may have seemed innocuous to the ’70s New Hollywood crowd, the hint of anyone having the audacity to knock on your door today feels like a horrifying violation of privacy.
Aronofsky goes to eerie heights by taking a party gathering, with friends and family bearing gifts and food, and painting it into a claustrophobic nightmare. I’m not being facetious; moments that would be happy or even banal in any other movie are filled to the brim with unbearable tension.
Turning away from the plot, the technical aspects of the film are fantastic. Aronofsky’s camera stays tight on Jennifer Lawrence’s face, creating a dizzying sense of anxiety as you feel her helplessness and her inability to escape as she winds around the Borgian labyrinth of the house.
The color palette and lighting in the film run in opposition to the unnatural tightness of the camera. The film’s muted colors mimic contemporary movies that only treat viewers to a bland landscape of greys, browns, and blacks, but in a way that accentuates the brightness of daily life without feeling showy. Performances throughout the film are varied with Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence giving the strongest performances.
While I am not usually entirely entranced by Lawrence’s acting or her persona, her performance makes me wonder why I had never seen her in a horror movie before. Her sense of anxiety, terror, and mania feels so real that you can’t help but sympathize with her. Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris also give fantastic showings alongside what I would call a surprise appearance by Domhnall Gleeson. However, some of the other characters were hit or miss, including a cameo made by Kristen Wiig that felt less like a performance and more of a chance to say “ Oh look! It’s Kristen Wiig not being Kristen Wiig!”
“Mother!” will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea. Even I, who liked the film, sometimes felt that Aronofsky’s use of allegory felt less like a mature and nuanced perspective than a way for him to rant and rail like a teenager who has decided to hate “the man.” Also, while I myself love horror movies and thrillers, “Mother!” is a difficult film to stomach with some movements going beyond scary and disturbing into outright scarring its viewers. However, if you can stomach it, I would recommend the film for horror lovers as well as those who like a good puzzle.