Film Review: ‘mother!’ (2023)

If the only thing we wanted, or expected, a horror film to do was to get a rise out of you — to make your eyes widen and your jaw drop, to leave you in breathless chortling spasms of WTF disbelief — then Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” would have to be reckoned some sort of masterpiece. As it is, the movie, which stars Jennifer Lawrence as a woman who slips down a rabbit hole of paranoid could-this-be-happening? reality (she flushes a beating heart down the toilet; blood in the shape of a vagina melts through the floorboards; and oh, the wackjobs who keep showing up!), is far from a masterpiece. It’s more like a dazzlingly skillful machine of virtual reality designed to get nothing buta rise out of you. It’s a baroque nightmare that’s about nothing but itself.

Yet for an increasingly large swath of the moviegoing audience, that may be enough. “mother!” is often entertaining in a knowingly over-the-top, look-ma-no-hands! way. To ask for a film like this one to be more than it is — to ask for it to connect to experience in a meaningful way — may, at this point, seem quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant. Considering the number of cruddy recycled horror movies made by hacks that score at the box office, the film is almost destined to be a success, maybe even a “sensation,” because Aronofsky is no hack — he’s a dark wizard of the cinematic arts. Yet his two greatest films, “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) and “The Wrestler” (2008), are both steeped in the human dimension, whereas “mother!” is a piece of ersatz humanity. Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to “mother!” and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.

In the remote green countryside, Lawrence plays the young second wife of a middle-aged celebrity author of feel-good poetry, played by Javier Bardem. (The characters are identified in the credits only as “mother” and “him.”) She’s renovating the couple’s exquisitely tasteful and spacious rustic Victorian mansion. The place sits in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but grass and trees and wind, like a wooden octagonal country castle: no road, no driveway, no cell-phone service. It’s a house with great bones, as they say, but the place was burned in a fire, which destroyed everything Bardem had, including his first wife. In the ashes, he found a burnished crystal, which gave him the faith to go on (it’s mounted in his study), and Lawrence wants to feel the faith too. She isn’t just fixing up a house; she’s restoring their lives.

That, however, is going to be a challenge, since Bardem, who has been a blocked writer ever since the fire, skulks around with knitted brows and a bitter scowl, treating Lawrence less as someone he loves than as the ball-and-chain he’s already sick of. The oddest thing about “mother!” is that it pretends to be a “psychological drama,” but the Tensions Simmering Below The Surface are all on the surface. Aronofsky, who wrote as well as directed the film, seems to be drawing characters and situations out of a ham-handed tradition of overly blatant B-movie horror. But can intentional obviousness be an artful style? There’s no subtext to “mother!” — just the film’s hyper-synthetic, flattened-out pop reality.

Early on, there’s a mysterious knock on the door. It’s a skeevy and deranged-looking Ed Harris, who has somehow found his way to the house, late at night, and acts oddly aggressive and familiar (to Bardem: “Your wife? I thought it was your daughter!”). The even stranger thing is that within minutes, he and Bardem are sitting around like old drinking buddies, as if they were in the middle of a conspiracy. When Bardem invites him to stay over, Lawrence quite understandably says, “He’s a stranger. We’re not going to let him sleep in our house.” That Bardem treats a stranger like family and his wife like crap doesn’t really make sense, but the film asks us to accept that we’re in the “Twilight Zone” version of a “Green Acres” universe, where everything Lawrence thinks, says, and does is wrong, and she’s going to suffer for it, all because…well, there is no because. All because that’s the movie’s sick-joke rules.

“mother!” is a nightmare played as a hallucination played as a theater-of-the-absurd video game that seems to descend, level by level, to more and more extreme depths of depraved intensity. You could say that Aronofsky is drawing on “The Shining” (the isolated setting and Bardem’s stony resentment) and also on “Rosemary’s Baby,” the greatest of all paranoid horror films. If so, however, he heads right for that film’s in-your-face, party-with-the-devil final scene (“Hail Satan!”), which director Roman Polanski took an entire two-hour movie to work up to. That movie was a bad-dream vision of pregnancy in which Rosemary paid the price for her trust and naïveté. But what, exactly, is the sin Lawrence is paying for?

The way “mother!” portrays it, she’s an addict of countrified good taste who’s too obsessed with her Martha Stewart home-restoration project. But seriously, this is a crime? The role, as written, is so thin that Lawrence, long hair parted down the middle, has to infuse it with her personality just to create a semblance of a character. She makes this victim-heroine a warm, eager, reasonable sweetheart who is full of feeling (and wants to have a baby herself), but watches her life turn into a funhouse of torment.

She does take a mysterious golden elixir, which may have head-altering properties. (But then she stops taking it, and the madness escalates anyway.) The fact that she imbibes any substance at all may link the film, in Aronofsky’s mind, to the Ellen Burstyn section of “Requiem for a Dream,” in which the director imagined addiction to amphetamines as a hallucination from hell. But that outrageous and memorable episode expressed something deep and true: that this is what drugs could do to your brain.

In “mother!,” the filmmaker basically just keeps coming up with bigger and better ways to punish his heroine. Harris’s wife comes over, and she’s a noodgy drunk played, with blaring ferocity, by Michelle Pfeiffer. A little later, we meet the couple’s adult sons (played by Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), who are at loggerheads, and everything that’s happened so far begins to look like child’s play. We’re now more or less rolling with it, taking refuge in Aronofsky’s puckish skill at staging the delirium, even as his relentless use of hand-held close-ups grows claustrophobic.

There’s an abstract audacity to “mother!” The film’s horror plays off everything from the grabby hordes of celebrity culture to the fear of Nazis and terrorists to —yes — what it means to be a mother (complete with the world’s most ironic exclamation point). All of that makes the film seem ambitious. But it also makes it a movie that’s about everything and nothing. You might say that it’s Aronofsky’s (confessional?) vision of what it’s like being married to a famous egocentric artist. But you could also say that “mother!” is so intent on putting an undeserving woman through the terrors of the damned that there’s a residue of misogyny to its design. Toss in a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shamyalan (a good or bad thing? Maybe both), and you’ve got a head-trip horror movie with something for everyone — except, perhaps, for those who want to emerge feeling more haunted than assaulted.


Who is the father of Zoe in The Mother? ›

The Mother trains her daughter.

However, Cruise is intercepted by Adrian (Joseph Fiennes), The Mother's other dangerous ex who was previously thought to be dead, and just so happens to be Zoe's biological father.

What did Jennifer Lawrence say about the movie Mother? ›

Jennifer Lawrence Hilariously Confessed That She Hardly Understood “Mother!” Despite Starring In It And “Sleeping With The Director” “I was sleeping with the director, so I had the CliffsNotes.”

What was the point of the movie Mother? ›

mother! is an allegory about God and the Earth. Javier Bardem's character, whom I'll refer to as The Poet, is God, and Jennifer Lawrence's character, whom I'll refer to as The Mother, is Mother Earth, with the house standing in for the environment.

What does the baby represent in Mother? ›

Much of the story tracks with the Book of Genesis. Him and Mother can be read as God and the Virgin Mary, and their baby—whom Him's maniacally devoted followers kill and then eat, in a twisted take on communion—as Jesus.

What does the ending of the movie mother mean? ›

Zoe is safe, and she returns to her adoptive mother. But the bond she's forged with her birth mother isn't going anywhere; in the final shot of the film we see the Mother watching her from above. “The idea is: she's always going to be there as her protector,” Caro says.

Is Lucy Paez Jennifer Lopez daughter? ›

Actor Lucy Paez really had to prove she could play Jennifer Lopez's daughter in their new movie, "The Mother." While speaking to Netflix's Tudum about the film, Paez, 14, said she had to audition for the role of Zoe in front of J. Lo's actual daughter, Emme, 15.

Why was Mother so controversial? ›

Mother! received generally positive reviews from critics, who praised Aronofsky's direction and the performances, particularly those of Lawrence and Pfeiffer, while its biblical allegories and depiction of violence sparked controversy.

Why did Jennifer not like filming Mother? ›

Jennifer Lawrence Thought The Film Went Too Far

The savage violence in Darren Aronofsky's psychological horror thriller, all of which was cruelly inflicted upon its female protagonist played by Jennifer Lawrence, was primarily what divided audiences. The actress plays the nameless lead known only as Mother.

Is the movie Mother about narcissism? ›

Hits All The High Notes of Narcissism. But, hey, it's not all lost. Aronofsky actually hit all the high notes when it comes to the problems of trying to love a pathologically narcissistic man.

What does the crystal symbolize in Mother? ›

The Man and Woman's fascination with the crystal represents Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. As soon as the Woman breaks the crystal, it shatters Mother and Him's seemingly perfect existence.

What does the frog mean in Mother? ›

There's also a frog, which appears briefly in the film and biblically represent “unclean spirits in the sight of God.” Then there's the mystery lighter, which also appears on the film's second illustrated poster, and which reappears throughout the film and is the key to Lawrence's eventual emancipation in the film.

What was the yellow stuff in Mother? ›

Darren Aronofsky never specifies what it is but my theory on this is that it is sulfur. Sulfur is naturally yellow. To reinforce this theory, Sulfur is mined in the earth's crust. A crust is like a shield, and Jennifer is Mother Earth, so maybe the Sulfur is a shield and somehow protects her of something.

What is the disturbing scene in the movie mother? ›

The Film's Infamous Final Act

After giving birth, her husband takes the baby from her to show his followers, resulting in a tragic, jaw-dropping death. Lawrence's screams intensify, now fueled with fiery, unrelenting rage.

What does each letter in mother stand for? ›

Mother ~ M Stands for Magnificent, O Stands for Outstanding, T Stands for Tender, H Stands for Honorable, E Stands for Extraordinary, R Stands for Remarkable.

What does the powder represent in mother? ›

"The Yellow Wallpaper"

The yellow powder in Mother! could just be a nod to the story, representing a connection to other women suffering from mental illness, controlling husbands, and stifling gender norms. The yellow powder might mean all of these things or none of them.

What is the role of Zoe in The Mother? ›

Luzy Paez plays Zoe, the young daughter of the Mother who had been living a normal life before being forced into the ongoing conflict between the Mother and her past.

Who is Zoe in The Mother? ›

Zoe is a character in the drama action movie The Mother. She is portrayed by Lucy Paez.

Who is the Alvarez in The Mother? ›

An unnamed U.S. military operative, known as "the Mother" (Jennifer Lopez), brokers an arms smuggling deal between ex-SAS Captain Adrian Lovell (Joseph Fiennes) and arms dealer Hector Álvarez (Gael García Bernal). Romantically involved with them both, she ends up becoming pregnant.

Who was Adrian in The Mother? ›

Portrayed by. Adrian Lovell is a character in the drama action movie The Mother. He is portrayed by Joseph Fiennes.

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