The films of writer-director Darren Aronofsky plow a unique terrain somewhere between hyperrealism and woozy, mesmerizing surrealism. “Pi” (1998), “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), “The Fountain” (2006), “Black Swan” (2010), even “Noah” (2014) are films that teeter on the precipice of their own subtexts, psychodramas in which the psycho- exerts more pull than the -drama. With “mother!,” Aronofsky throws caution to the winds and delivers his most abstract cinematic experience yet. It’s also arguably his worst.
The first hour is rich and profoundly unsettling, a paranoid dream-play that riffs on some of our most foundational fears. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play an unnamed married couple living in a gothic country manse; he’s a poet, older, celebrated, and blocked, and she’s worshipful and very young. Already something is off: The husband unaccountably keeps his distance and the wife is prone to mysterious fits in which the entire house seems to ring and throb.
A strange couple arrives in the persons of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, welcomed by the husband but increasingly intrusive to the wife. By this point, “mother!” is dancing on the edge of nightmare, dramatizing with uncanny force a young woman’s fears of being ignored, undone, obliterated. It’s as if Aronofsky had taken a Roman Polanski film — “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Repulsion” — and thrownout the plot, leaving only the high cinematic anxiety. The filmmaking is masterful and disturbing, utilizing close-ups, tracking shots, and an ingeniously concatenated sound design to keep us as off-balance as the heroine.
At a certain point, though, Aronofsky opens the floodgates of sensationalism and “mother!” starts to founder. The older couple’s two sons (played by brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) turn up and bring their biblical rivalry to a head, after which the house is invaded by a host of mourners. Then the film takes a swan dive into the truly allegorical, with the now-pregnant wife the center of an apocalyptic assault by her husband’s cult-like fans. Aronofsky keeps ratcheting up the chaos, the noise, the pounding assault on the wife’s and our sensibilities until “mother!” devolves into a muddy canvas of sub-Boschian Hell. The movie becomes a visionary chore, and then a visionary bore.
All that holds the experience together is Lawrence in the lead, her put-upon heroine growing more iconic, strong, and martyred as the film’s universe comes unglued. (Bardem, by contrast, disappears into a character who’s intentionally hard to read; Harris is cheerful and creepy, Pfeiffer magnificently cold.) There are ripe, unarticulated truths here about the ways women can be subsumed by their men, the hearts they keep beating in the depths of their homes, the wounds they sustain, the sacrifices that extend to their identities themselves.
And there are just as many scenes where you feel Aronofsky tossing pots of paint at his canvas with no sense of structure or cohesion. It’s a brave artist who throws off all restraint. It’s perhaps a wiser one who knows its value in the first place.
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer. At Boston Common, Fenway, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 121 minutes. R (strong disturbing violence, some sexuality, nudity, and language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.