Cinema is full of unwelcome guests and domestic intruders, from that unexpected knock on the door to the uncomfortable sense of anxiety caused by someone overstaying their welcome. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is perhaps the most obvious example of this; two young men dressed in white enquiring about borrowing some eggs but who possess much more sinister intentions. From Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter to the voice at the end of the phone in Wes Craven’s Scream, invasion of privacy remains a key cinematic trait, particularly in horror, psychological thrillers and drama. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! contains elements of all three of these genres and centres all of its unbearable tension around the peaceful home of a married couple being gradually infiltrated by mysterious strangers. Nobody is given a name here, but Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist is married to Javier Bardem, a frustrated writer suffering from writer’s block. The couple reside in his childhood home which his wife is breathing life back into, one room and one coat of paint at a time. Their isolated, peaceful existence is disturbed when Ed Harris stumbles over their threshold, claiming to have mistaken the house for a bed and breakfast. Despite his wife’s evident unease at the sudden arrival of an unexpected guest, the writer seems grateful to have the distraction, taking his attention away from his creative stale mate which fuels the unspoken tension in his marriage. Husband and wife have very different responses to their guest; Bardem keen to open their doors in welcome and Lawrence desperate to bolt them for privacy. What follows is utter hysteria – something of a paranoid fever dream.
Evidently conjured from the same psychotic place from which Black Swan came, mother! is a relentless and punishing ordeal; a toxic mixture of white man nonsense and artistic subtlety. The house that shelters the film’s couple is as much a main character as man and wife. The solid wooden floorboards and stunning interiors are evidence of the hard grafting of Lawrence’s character in an attempt ‘to build a paradise’ for them both. Meanwhile the creeks of doors and the sinister basement are creepy reminders of horrors of the past and repeatedly encourage Lawrence’s anxiety to overwhelm her. From start to finish mother! gripped me tight and wouldn’t let me go. After two hours my jaw was aching from biting down on my sleeve and my anxiety was through the roof. It’s hard to discuss the film’s narrative in detail, particularly due to the plot’s strong use of symbolism and linear uncertainty. Bardem and Lawrence raise one another up, working in perfect unison to bring us powerful and potent performances and a hideous portrait of a marriage with all of its intimacy and intensity laid bare for all to witness. Religious allegory grows perhaps a little too blatant in the film’s final quarter but mother! remains a complex nightmare which I will continue to unravel for days to come. I have no doubt that mother! would prove even more rewarding with repeat viewings but I am absolutely adamant that I never want to watch it again.
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