Once more, with feeling: “God? It’s me, Darren.” After the massively scaled juggernaut of the life of “Noah,” Darren Aronofsky returns in “Mother!” to his favored location for all of his work since his first feature, “Pi”: the confines of the disordered mind, or at least, in this case, the interior of a single house that contains many, many minds. A man mind. A God mind. An Aronofsky mind. (He’ll show you the Life of the Mind!) Jokes and puns occasion themselves to distance from the beaten heart of “Mother!” and its head-on, headlong, careening allegory and metaphor and fancy-free that not only includes a kitchen sink, but an unmoored kitchen sink that detonates with abandon. (Floods, even.) Going for baroque! After all the reckless, restless frenzy that courses through this non-narrative nightmare in the form of homage, religious allegory, parables invoked, revisited, detonated, I would willingly grant Aronofsky four or five or six exclamation points. !!!!! seems just right! A Man (no name) and a Woman (no name) live in a baronial octagonal house in the middle of grassy anywhere-nowhere. Man, old, is a writer, a pretentious poet, whose work tends to the terse and telegraphic, suited for parchment and revered like Paulo Coelho’s. Woman, young, attempts to refurbish the house in her own image, a “paradise,” even mixing her own paints to pillowy perfection, with a yellow dust like pollen. “When there’s a generation between you…” an intrusive drunken middle-aged radiance sneers among her on-point sneers. Javier Bardem looks as old as craggy Gibraltar; Jennifer Lawrence as young as a hen’s egg. She’s a timeless mother nature. The camera stays close to Lawrence’s pale form, her shoulders, face, eyes, like in László Nemes’ “Son of Saul.” Each wide shot revealing that she remains barefoot, throughout the film: Madonna, icon, vessel, vassal? Is “Mother!” inside her head, His head, our head? Man has writer’s Matterhorn more than he has block: and he neglects his muse at his, her, our peril. This swarming tapestry is berserk from the get-go, an infuriating, confounding, inexorable apocalypse as large as the cosmos and as compact as the human heart. Each breath taken introduces further noxious fumes, figuratively, literally. The camera lingers at door facings, wondering what terrible things lie just inches to the left, just as any proper pupil of Polanski would place it. Confounding social interactions are forced upon Jennifer Lawrence’s title character with the dream illogic of a half-dozen passages from Buñuel, pictures painted by Breugel and Bosch. (So many minor, crawling figures to creep you out.) From the 1960s: American theater “happenings,” cinematic central European political parables by Ionesco and others. (The house is a house, of course, but our planet as well.) Sound design of yawing specificity sustains the fever: doors close with a sepulchral thump. Ching! and Pinggg! and Wooosh! are adept minor players. All of Aronofsky’s tools and technical talents are on flagrant display. And, well, the religious parallels are there in blood and thunder, to be taken and mildly masticated or eagerly devoured, depending on your personal training and beliefs. And finally, “Mother!” is also a movie that writer-indicting writer Janet Malcolm can love. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm wrote in “The Journalist and the Murderer.” “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Without putting too much English on it, this may be the Work of Man, of The Artist, but Aronofsky’s game as well: trust me not, the crystalline final images say, art is afoot and for that, there are no apologies, only… art. Each strand of madness is there to be relished, even if it will make some viewers seethe. “His words are yours,” as another nameless figure from the mass of humanity insists. Take, eat. (Discover the remainder of the cast for yourself.) 115m. (Ray Pride)
“Mother!” opens Friday, September 15.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.