Review: ‘Mother!’ Is a Divine Comedy, Dressed as a Psychological Thriller

Once you grasp that idea, you are left wondering just how far Mr. Aronofsky will go with it. The answer is all the way and then some — from Genesis to Revelation and back again. The house is referred to early in the film as “paradise”; Ms. Lawrence refers to a relatively minor mess as an “apocalypse.” These are more teasers than jokes, and the punch lines arrive with mesmerizing literalness. Holy Eucharist, Batman!


Trailer: ‘Mother!’

A preview of the film.

By PARAMOUNT PICTURES on Publish Date September 9, 2017.

Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

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Not that Mr. Aronofsky follows any known doctrinal path, any more than he did in “Noah,” which upset some believers by taking liberties with its scriptural source. “Mother!” casts a wider net, gathering influences from cinema — Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Gaspar Noé — from literature and, most strikingly, from painting. Mr. Aronofsky and his usual cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, conduct a master class in light, shadow and Renaissance art. Ms. Lawrence glows like an Italian Madonna, while the deep lines in Mr. Bardem’s face and the sorrowful cast of his eyes suggest El Greco. The infernal chaos of the climactic sequences are pure Hieronymus Bosch, updated for the age of Kristen Wiig and automatic weaponry.

It falls to the actors to endow this highly symbolic, pictorially overloaded environment with a sense of human reality — with flesh and blood and feeling. Mr. Bardem, alpha male and omega man, is the kind of actor who can endow an abstraction with gravity and tenderness. (He did pretty much that in “No Country for Old Men.”) The enigmatic nature of his character in “Mother!” allows him to relax, to be playful and charismatic, and to disappear. Mr. Harris and especially Ms. Pfeiffer bring a jolt of shtick and a whisper of camp, qualities that you may miss terribly when they depart.

Ms. Lawrence, for her part, bears an impossible burden. In dramatic terms, she is a passive, reactive protagonist, a cipher and, in the strict sense of the word, an icon. Called upon to embody all of womankind — and a lot else besides — she is denied the chance to be human, and her blankness empties the film of emotional power.

What it has, instead, is extravagant sensation and churning intellectual energy. Mr. Aronofsky is a virtuoso of mood and timing, a devoted student of form and technique straining to be a credible visionary. But as wild and provocative as his images can be, there is something missing — an element of strangeness, of difficulty, of the kind of inspiration that overrides mere cleverness.

On the other hand, “Mother!” made me laugh harder and more frequently than just about any other movie I’ve seen this year. I don’t say this derisively. Mr. Aronofsky’s visual wit and dexterous, disciplined camera movements create frissons of comic terror. His gift for escalation — evident in the marvelous crescendo of frenzied action that occupies most of the movie’s second half — may be unmatched in his generation of filmmakers.

It’s not clear that his gifts match his ambitions. He wants to be Kubrick, but maybe what we need is a new Blake Edwards. At a time when film comedy is mostly a verbal and psychical affair — the domain of writers and clowns — there is a dearth of funny directors with Mr. Aronofsky’s sophisticated chops. If he didn’t take himself so seriously, he could be a great comic filmmaker. But maybe “Mother!” proves that he already is.

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