Mother! (Paramount Pictures, R)

Jennifer Lawrence is captivating as she watches her world fall apart in director Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, a gonzo, unconventional, yet compelling exploration of a psychological state of mind.

The film has a simple set-up. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a married couple living a quiet life in a big house. They have no names, but are referred to as Mother and Him in the credits. Mother is content with the solitude, while Him, a poet, is dealing with a creative block. But the quaintness comes crashing down with the arrival of an ailing doctor (Ed Harris) and his unremitting wife (Michelle Pfeiffer in a chilling performance), who takes a dislike towards Mother’s uneventful life. Him welcomes them both with open arms, but their presence begins to tear his and Mother’s relationship apart. Soon enough, their angry sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) come crashing the party and, once Him finds his creativity, the house fills with even more strangers and admirers of his work. All of this takes a toll on Mother, who is caught in the middle of a chaotic place she once called a refuge.

You have to give a hand to a studio like Paramount Pictures for the audaciousness to put out what could be considered Aronofsky’s most bizarre feature yet. There is no story structure or background to the characters. The rules here are simple: they don’t exist. What he is trying to say here may need some thought for a while after viewing (one of the most obvious is the value of art over life and watching something you created come crashing down). Aronofsky instead uses the camera, sound and performances to drive the momentum forward. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography creates an uneasy feeling, relying on close-ups that bring back memories of Black Swan. Here, the subject of most of those shots is Lawrence, and the camera never leaves her point of view. When the camera focuses on anything else, it is through her eyes. The framing of every shot is always disorienting, but it adds to the unsettling feel the film is going for. The house feels like both an endless maze and the most claustrophobic space possible thanks to ingenious camerawork. Once the final act rolls around, all bets are off and the cinematography paints a beautiful picture of chaotic proportions. Mix in some sparsely used but instinctually placed sound effects and a saturated green aesthetic, and you have got an interesting take on how horror movies look.

In this sea of madness, Lawrence carries us through it with complete dedication. This role is unlike anything that she has done.  Her meekness in the beginning sparks sympathy, while her eventual breakdown inspires fright. This character’s psychological state evolves in rapid succession, and Lawrence is able to handle it all like a champ. I would go out on a limb to say that it is one her most memorable performances to date. Contrasting the wild emotional shift of Lawrence and her character is the relatively more subdued effort by Bardem, whose character carries an air of mystery that only he can play really well. Pfeiffer makes a strong impression with a turn that more or less embraces the darker aspects of her character, something she can relish in. Harris is great as always, playing the more level-headed character in this cacophony of craziness.

Mother!s lack of story structure and complete insanity may make it inaccessible to many. I can see this being on both end-of-the-year best and worst lists, and it’s a surreal ride for sure. However, if you embrace that, you may find something here to chew on. Mother! is big, brash, bizarre, but kind of beautiful. It’s pure Aronofsky, and your enjoyment will depend on how you react to those three words. | Bill Loellke

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