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Review: Darren Aronofsky's "mother!"

This review contains mild spoilers from the first half of the film since everything is essentially a spoiler given the cryptic promotions. The review was previously published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

“Baby?” is the first line spoken in Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother!  but not its first image. The film begins with a defiant girl burning in a house consumed by fire. Javier Bardem collects a gem from the ashes. He places it on a shelf with other less brilliant but similar gems and we watch as the house restores itself from blackened ash. What to make of this rebirth… or is it a timelapse reversal of the destruction? Are we seeing the future or the past?

Cut to Jennifer Lawrence, waking up suddenly in bed. Where is her husband?


While Lawrence is the star she’s a cypher-like presence in this particular film (new for her) a mostly passive figure to whom the action happens... We learn very little about her marriage besides the fact that he is a writer and she spends her time restoring their massive home.

Then a knock on the door…

A coughing old “Man” (no characters are named in the film but this one is played by Ed Harris) has mistaken the house for a Bed & Breakfast. The husband, much to the wife’s surprise, let’s the stranger right in, offering him a room to sleep in for as long as he needs. Things only get stranger. Another knock on the door but this time it’s mere a courtesy gesture. “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer, utterly delicious in her big screen return) enters the house with total entitlement.

Before long the older woman is badgering the young wife to have children and prying into her life with a disturbing lack of propriety.

The young wife increasingly loses her bearings in the presence of Man and Woman who are intrusive, nosey, rude, and entirely unwelcome as she sees it. So why doesn’t her husband feel the same? And why is the oldest couple so interested in “Him” (Javier Bardem) and why do they have his photo in their bag?

And Why? Why? Why? 

Aronofsky and his trusted cinematographer Matthew Libatique and editor Andrew Weisblum keep you as tense as Lawrence with their jagged darting camera, low-fi images (16 mm film as with some previous Aronofsky titles), and disorienting cuts. They’re constantly circling the young mother, who is already off balance; she can’t believe what she’s experiencing and is perpetually dizzy with confusion.

More knocks on the door. More madness entering and with it an increasingly surreal vibe. Sudden Violence. Grotesque Visions. Blood Stains. Strange Leaks. Exploding Lightbulbs. It’s not just the wife falling apart but the house, too.

mysterious blood stains are never a good signTo share any details from the absolutely bonkers second act would be a disservice. It will be enough to say that each scene stacks suddenly atop one another like a precarious moving bloody Jenga game played with living things. mother! becomes ever more crowded, cacophonous, ugly, nonsensical and deranged until its spiky and arguably glib end.

…and a lot of people are going to hate it.

The trick to enjoying it is to not take it literally, for mother! is never literal. Like an exceedingly grim fairy tale, it’s always very pregnant with metaphor. But what is a metaphor of? I’ve already heard several theories including social media as destructive force, impending environmental disaster, abusive marriages, religious extremism. There will be others.

Has Darren Aronofsky made a surreal masterpiece or a self-indulgent folly or some deformed hybrid of the two? Since it’s most definitely cinema why is it restricted to a single set like a stage play? Even after you’ve seen mother! (which you should because movies this strange and non-literal are exceedingly rare) you may have no answers. The film veers insanely from one moment to the next, from brilliance to stupidity to overkill and back again, drunk on its own bravura whatthefuckery.

The questions don’t end with the mystery of its shape, form, and content. Who or what even is the title character? The simple answer you can confirm with your eyes is that it’s Jennifer Lawrence, who midway through the picture is fully round with child. (She is also referred to as “Mother” in the credit scroll). And yet I’m not so sure she is.

“Woman” identifies far more as a mother after all. Pfeiffer’s character has two sons, who we meet briefly (played by real life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), and extolls the importance of a child to a marriage. But that isn’t quite right. She’s more sinister than nurturing as she circles Jennifer Lawrence early in the film, as if she’s trying to catch the secret scent of her prey.

The film is dense and strange enough that mother! may not even be a woman. The film’s possible environmental apocalypse reading could suggest that the title character is actually Mother Earth, as embodied by the house. The visuals repeatedly stress decay and rebirth with humans always serving as a selfish destructive force. It also could be “Him”, the revered writer married to the pregnant girl, who is the creative force of the film. He makes and shares his art at the expense of all else, ignoring his life. And given his increasingly messianic behavior (glimpsed in the trailer), isn’t he, as so many major movie characters are in auteurist cinema, a mere stand-in for the director. The director is, after all, the god of his own filmography.

In the end isn’t mother! as a perverse self portrait of its director? Aronofsky is remixing the paranoid delusions, obsessive addictions, perverse sexuality, and horrific religious grandeur that have marked his previous films Requiem for a Dream, Noah, Black Swan, Pi, and The Fountain (The Wrestler remains his most atypical film). He’ll repeat the chaotic process of creation over and over again as he embarks on each new film; a fresh gem for an increasingly crowded shelf. That’s the interpretation I’m currently married to, for better and worse, til’ fiery apocalypse do us part.

Still, in all honesty, mother! is such a maddening mess of contradictions, epic grotesquerie (you’ve been warned), symbolic overkill, and dull repetitions that everyone is likely to birth their own unique interpretation as the credits roll. The gestation period is 121 minutes and quite unpleasant. Good luck.

Grade: A, B, C, D, F ...often all at once.
Oscar Chances: Unlikely but for a shot at Supporting Actress for Michelle Pfeiffer who is handily the MVP, gets the film's showiest character (drunk, mean, funny, talkative, improper), aces the film's most audience-friendly sequences, and is greatly missed once she exits the story.

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Reader Comments (54)

Sounds terrible. Thank you for watching it so I don't have to.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I can't WAIT!!!!

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

I saw it last night and I'm not sure how I feel about it. I think I lean more towards like than dislike but it's hard to know when I'm not even sure I get what it's trying to say. And I don't need a film to tell me what it's about. I like work that's ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways but this type of ambiguity felt like the movie didn't know what it wanted to say so it settled for something so far out that there would be a multitude of interpretations.

The first act moves in a slower pace but I loved how ominous it felt. Then things transition into such a level of bonkers that I liked less but was still captivated by how ballsy it was to even go that far.

Pfeiffer was a blast. I kept hoping she would make a reappearance.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJess

I see bias lol.

There's a group out there who are clearly loving the film, and given Pfeiffer's relatively smaller role than I anticipated, I think it's clearly Lawrence and not her who is the film's biggest shot at awards recognition. Mostly because they love Lawrence and they love physical commitments, which this film has. So I can imagine that group of passionate fans to rally behind Lawrence. Not over Pfeiffer as much.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve_Man

reminds me of The Master which I thought was simultaneously a well-made huge misfire and a vital masterpiece. christ on a pancake I need to watch this. Altogether now; FOR LA PFIEFF!

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris

...omg I spelt Pfeiff wrong, throw stones at me I deserve this

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris

I loved Pfeiffer and hope she wins the Oscar for this. However—

I do get similar vibes from this role, project and performance that I got from Julianne Moore in A Single Man and Jane Fonda in Youth. It's a thrilling, sexy, stylish performance and the camera has utmost reverence for her.

I'll be shocked if she doesn't get a Golden Globe nomination, though.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Excellent read, Nathaniel! I'm seeing it in 7 weeks, thank you Poland, but I'm sure it's gonna be an experience like no other

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commentersati

I'm hopeful for pfeiffer but have seen too many reviews calling Lawrence and Braden best in show, so I don't think the majority of those who've seen it agree with TFE that pfeiffer is MVP; though I'm sure I'll agree with TFE. She's just so good at over-the-too and styalized perfrotmances.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

On a side note, I think it's hilarious that Fox released the trailer for Red Sparrow this week. "Need your J-Law fix but not interested in watching her go batshit? We have the movie for you!"

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Anonny -- are you serious? those critics must be daft. all i'm seeing on twitter from critics is michelle pfeiffer michelle pfeiffer michelle pfeiffer.

September 15, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Anonny, I have to co-sign what Nathaniel just said. Yesterday I parsed the critics' reviews culled by Rotten Tomatoes, and although many of them have high praise for Lawrence, Pfeiffer is receiving the lion's share of best-in-show notices.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

You know, I haven't seen it yet, but I am glad Passengers didn't kill Lawrence's career and that she is interested in working with talented people. I was expecting her to be back into O. Russell's arms after the Passengers flop situation, but she managed to cope with failure in a different way!

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Via Deadline: Paramount’s mother! is looking at $4.2M today and $9M-$11M this weekend. Many believe it’s going lower because audiences since last night have been hating on the Darren Aronofsky-Jennifer Lawrence team-up. mother! was sold like a Screen Gems horror film, but when moviegoers finally get inside the theater, they find out it’s something completely different. PostTrak results reveal a 51% overall positive and a 33% definite recommend, which is as bad as its gets.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSister Rona Barrett

I just got back from watching it. I loved it. I fucking loved it. I agree with your grades. It's genius. It's terrible. It's hateful. You can't take your eyes away. I loved it and I'll go see it again.

Pfeiffer definitely the MVP, I can see her getting the sole nom at Oscar time if she's willing to hustle for it. J-law is game, but agree the character is too passive for her to be really considered in the best actress race, especially in such a crowded year.


My interpretation is definitely a biblical one.... he's God, she's Mother Nature...First act is clearly the Old Testament/Genesis, the rib, Eve and the forbidden fruit, the great flood, the 10 plagues... he then writes the bible and religious fervour causes war, destruction, over and over, Jesus is sacrificed, and despite Mother Nature trying to warn us repeatedly, we keep going until we destroy Earth completely.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJB

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

can't wait

still scratching my head how/why this got wide release, but so be it

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I found the last 10 minutes almost unwatchable,I looked away several times as with every film it lost something when Pfieffer left,no spoilers but it's a Lynchian headf***.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Just guesswork since I haven't seen more than the trailer, but this sounds like the type of film that would never have gotten as wide a release as it will without having big names attached. That's not a knock...it could certainly be a masterpiece to many. But it sounds like it's already putting off quite a few who expected something linear and genre.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

The first part was pretty nice but not CRAZY GOOD. There was zero chemistry between Lawrence and Bardem but maybe it was meant by the director. ... I really loved the scenes between Lawrence and Pfeiffer, when they're alone in the house, because something electric happened on screen.
On the other hand, those scenes just made the rest of the film seem pretty pointless. The metaphor of the uninspired artist turning his wife's life into hell was taken way too far for my taste (sorry but i just can't stand watching a pregnant woman being beaten up by a crowd !).

But Pfeiffer really deserves a nomination just for giving a strong enough performance to survive all the mess that happens once she leaves the screen.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClement_Paris

I just watched the movie. I have no idea what I just saw. Feel like puking.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

I think Lawrence is a lot better than she'll get credit for in this movie. That being said, I'd LOVE for Michelle Pfeiffer to score a Supporting Actress nomination. She really does bring a great amount of energy to the film, though I think it remains a tense, engaging piece even when she isn't there. I rarely see movies more than once in the theater, but I feel like I need to see this again and SOON.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

I mean, pfeiffer is not even in the most talked about portion of the movie.
if you really think most people come out of this movie with "pfeiffer pfeiffer pfeiffer" on their minds, talk about living in a bubble. lol

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

There's a moment where Jennifer Lawrence screams "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS," which is exactly me at Darren Aronofsky.

It's an easy F for me.

I LOVE Pfeiffer, but I really cannot imagine her being nominated for this. I wanted so much more. :(

What a dumb letdown.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Basically what I said when the trailer came out and you all went crazy about it.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

a grotesque and horrendous film... the "acting" was abominable... yes, Pfeiffer, too.

I usually like her a lot, but not in this piece of film.. if anyone but Pfeiffer had this role, you all would have been true in your review. She will NOT receive a nom for this crap! There I said it!!!

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenternatalie

@ Marcelo...just look on Twitter and read some reviews...you are wrong. A lot of people are coming away with Pfeiffer on the brain.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHmmph

@ natalie let's not act like it's only Nathaniel and commenters here who are loving MP's performance. Give me a break. She got great reviews and there are lots of tweets praising her.

I agree about the film being crap, though...

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHmmph

@hmmph key word is 'most', which I'm not sure. but I don't expect objectivity with nat and this movie, which was basically covered here as a pfeiffer vehicle.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

real question: why is there no E rating? A B C D F? Why no E in film rating?

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Saw this today. Worst film I ever saw in my entire life. F is too high. I give it a U.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

hmm. you know, I have a feeling that a cracked out Horror movie may not be Oscar's thing? Usually horrors don't get attention from awards bodies unless there's more unanimous praise, even if its seen as divisive. (The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs and Aronofsky's Black Swan all have over 80% on RT wherein mother! has only 72 or something?). I think this might be a reach. Yall who have been saying MP will have to campaign her ass off were on the money.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris

I usually like Aronofsky, but this was a pathetic mess. And the biblical allegory was infuriatingly obvious and simplistic.
Would be an easy F, if not for the good craftsmanship (that sound design) and Michelle Pfeifer.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchasm301

This movie got a rare F CinemaScore. Audiences can't stand it. I don't remember something so hyped that flopped so badly with A List "talent". RIP

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJose

The film is allegorical and, if you're into that (I am), you'll probably be fascinated by it. If not, stay away!

I think JLaw is very good, and stretching herself in a type of role that's new for her. The film is almost entirely from her point of view and she's in just about every scene. Pfeiffer is great, but critics will have to rally for her to survive the vitriol of the haters. The F Cinemascore says it all - the movie will be perceived as a bomb and therefore a failure.

I'm with JB on his Biblical interpretation, which also sits with what JLaw has said in an interview (at Deadline) about her being Mother Earth. When I watched it, I wondered if it was a metaphor for the creation of art. With the house being his mind/psyche, her his Muse/creative spirit, and the child the art that he creates through her. How any work of creation has to be given up by an artist and let loose on a potentially threatening and hostile world to be destroyed, before creation can begin anew. A bit pretentious, huh! But that was where my mind went. The Biblical creation theories nd allegory about destroying the planet make more sense, especially with Aronofsky having just made NOAH.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

lol @ the Cinemascore - expect razzies & the like

too bad, but I think Paramount was stupid to release this sort of fare into American malls under the guise of suspense/horror - wtf were they thinking?

seems like something that should have played festivals & has a very limited release schedule

head scratching

I can imagine the average Friday night film goer is expecting a movie where he cheats on her & she gets revenge at the end or something

poor Michelle - almost everyone said she was great in it


September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve


you have to remember - a big chunk of these people (mall crowd etc) don't even know what allegory is

they get more resentful/defensive when they don't understand something & feel like they are being "browbeat"

combined with the anti - JLaw campaign after her climate change comments just leads to a mess

going the immediate wide release route was just bizarre... provide this sort of film via limited release to people who are excited to dissect & analyze it, not an unwitting public

do you think Amacord or Exterminating Angel would get great Cinemascores?

I imagine exec shifts at Paramount are coming soon

then again, an F at Cinemascore might be a badge of honor ;-)

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Steve -- but a wide release is the only way to keep the movie shocking and make at least some money. imagine knowing everything that happens before seeing it. most would stay away.

September 16, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I guess... just seems like an impossible sell anyway you market it

now it becomes a serious case of life imitating art

maybe Mother is mother! :-0

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Ok, finally sorted out my opinions on the film. I loved it. Just straight up. I don't think a film has made me so tense, disgusted, and claustrophobic ever. It's allI can think about after I watched it. The merits of the metaphors aside, this will definitely make my top 5 movies of the year. Saw Shape of Water right after watching this film, and I felt thoroughly bored in comparison. Seeing Downsizing tonight.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

Now mother is down to 69% on Rotten Tomatoes with a poor 43% audience score. I feel bad for Michelle because an Oscar is not happening for this disaster

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJose

If the average movie goer knows nothing much bar it's a Jennifer Lawrence horror film may expect another House at the End of the Street and obviously they get mother! and the scores then would be v low,for one thing it's a film that's going to be discussed around the internet for years and then become a cult movie

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I know saying this could get me banned from the site but I've never really enjoyed watching Pfeiffer onscreen (except maybe Grease 2!).

But in this I thought she was great and definitely Oscar nod worthy. I can't wait to see her as Mrs Hubbard next.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

yes Adam - the "except Grease 2" part will get you a few side-eyes ;-)

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Going on a hunch to say that Academy Voters will not be remembering this hot mess come voting time.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I think this is Jennifer Lawrence's best performance so far. Awed.

Also - the sound design! If the film isn't nominated in mixing/editing AMPAS is just not doing its job.

I found the Biblical allegory fairly ham-handed and strained. The film works best as a straight-up social/body/maternal/invasion horror nightmare, like "Repulsion" mixed with "Alien" and "Night of the Living Dead." It's also... really funny.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

I thought it was daring and thought-provoking and JLaw was fantastic but... those of you who think this will be Oscar-nominated have your drunk-with-actressexuality beer goggles on. This movie makes Elle look like The Blind Side.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

The cinemascore is a joke. This is why we can't have nice things and why studios keep on churning out dreck like The Emoji Movie and Baywatch.

I agree with a previous commenter - audiences don't like it when a movie subverts their expectations and becomes something far deeper and disturbing than they thought they were getting. In a way, I see parallels with Haneke's Funny Games and this film.

mother! is singularly unique. It really is quite astonishing that a major studio had the balls to commit to a wide release for this film - it's becoming rarer and rarer. We can argue if the release strategy was the smartest thing for this movie, but I hope that other film studios will not be deterred from developing and releasing other challenging, auteur-driven art films like this.

September 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Ugh. I really wanted to go there and enjoy the contradictions. Now I wish I'd walked out.

September 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

I finally watched it! To be honest, I'm not sure if I hate or like it. Some parts were more accessible than others but then accessibility has never been part of Aronofsky's agenda. What's alarming (at least to me) was that more than half the audience walked out of the cinema as early as even during the first half. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was hoping Pfeiffer will win the supporting Oscar but having seen this I don't think she will even be nominated unless she campaigns aggressively and the studio makes a vehement push for it.

September 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJans

JB is right on the money. I picked it up from the GleesonsCain/Abel plot development, and it just kept confirming it from there.

September 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTravisC

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