Don't Read This Review Of Darren Aronofsky's Compelling, Confounding 'Mother!' Critic Chris Klimek thinks you should go into this film about a poet (Javier Bardem) and his submissive wife (Jennifer Lawrence) cold — just be prepared for "squirm-inducing fun."
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Don't Read This Review Of Darren Aronofsky's Compelling, Confounding 'Mother!'

Paint and Suffering: Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman called Mother in Darren Aronofsky's mother! Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures hide caption

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Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures

Paint and Suffering: Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman called Mother in Darren Aronofsky's mother!

Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures

Don't read this.

I'm serious.

Reviews are, generally speaking, the best way to get a sense of whether a given movie is likely to be a rewarding experience for you. You gamble (at most) a couple of minutes before you gamble (at least) a couple of hours and a not-inconsequential sum of your hard-earned cash. Often, for your trouble, you get a pithy reminder of what the artists involved have done before. Best of all — if the critic is any good —you get a temporary parole from the prison of the self. Because if you do decide to see the film in question, you're only going to be able to see it as yourself, filtered through your own taste and mood and life experience. But a critic — again, if they've got any skills — can show you what one other person saw. What a gift!

As I say: Generally speaking.

Except alllllllll that noise takes a backseat to the thrill of confusion and discovery of going into writer/producer/director Darren Aronofsky's confounding mother! (sic) stone-cold, like I did.

Not absolute-zero, halt-of-all-molecular-motion cold. I've seen his other films. (Well, not Noah.) I was surprised, when I thought about it, to realize I had seen five of his prior movies once each, going back to his black-and-white no-budget debut Pi almost 20 years ago. Even images I would prefer not to have in my brain (like much of his sophomore feature, the unrated generational drug-addiction nightmare Requiem for a Dream) have lodged there so stubbornly I figured I must have revisited that one, or the three-part metaphysical romance The Fountain, or the broken-down sports drama The Wrestler, or the psychological ballet drama Black Swan at some point after they had left cinemas. Nope. I saw them, I appreciated them, I thought of them frequently, I never had trouble recalling what Darren Aronofsky had done whenever I saw his name. There was a brief, weird moment about 15 years ago when he was going to make a Batman movie with once-beloved comic book creator-turned-divisive-crank Frank Miller. Really. Bat-maaaaaaan! NanaNANAnanaNANAbat—

Oh, you're still here! Why? You must've noticed me vamping my fool fingers off, supplying you every chance to get bored or frustrated and click elsewhere. I'll tell you again: mother! (sic) is best consumed knowing as little as possible about it! (emphasis mine).

Well, okay. You were warned. You were given an explanation.

Which is the last thing you want, with a movie like this: the product of a genuinely distinct and idiosyncratic vision, which can be illuminated but not solved the way more market-minded movies can. Of course it's pretentious! That's permissible, even desirable, when the movie's determination not to abide by the rhythms and strictures of more conventional releases has the effect of making it more unpredictable and absorbing and — what's the word — fun.

On its most superficial, accessible level, mother! is squirm-inducing fun.

For a while, before its more allegorical readings start to gnaw at you (and eventually pummel you), it's just a creepy haunted house movie/frail marriage movie. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple (no names) who live in an absurdly large and remote house (no county, state, nation or planet). She spends her days putting the finishing touches on the rehabilitation project to which she has devoted months; it seems there was a fire in the old place, back before her time. "I want to make it paradise," she says. (Huh.)

He spends his doing whatever writers do when they're supposed to be writing, including going for long walks. Of course he is blocked. Of course his spouse shall suffer for his art. Aronofsky has seen The Shining, and he knows you've seen The Shining, too. The little things unsettle you: Why is virtually all the photography hand-held? Why is the camera so close to Lawrence's face (and occasionally mounted on her person)? Why is the most advanced piece of technology in this house a landline telephone? What is that coppery substance Lawrence dissolves in water and chugs when she gets a migraine? The guy in Pi suffered from migraines too, didn't he? Why is there a festering wound in the floor?

Bardem's character is so starved for inspiration that he is delighted when uninvited guests arrive. First, Ed Harris, as a wheezing, obsequious surgeon. He is much more deferential to Bardem than to Lawrence: "I thought she was your daughter," he says, more admiringly than apologetically. He seems like a pest until his spouse, Michelle Pfeiffer, turns up. Is there such a thing as a femme genocidale? Because that's her, oozing resentment, prying immediately: What about kids don't you want kids why don't you have kids? So now it's a God of Carnage situation, with two couples in a house that isn't big enough for the both of them, even though this one is really quite large.

I don't think I should tell you anything else! Except that Lawrence makes a superb audience surrogate. She is just like you and me, only calmer and more relaxed in her skin and much more attractive. Also, that casting perhaps the biggest lady star in Hollywood as the much-abused spouse of a suffering artist whose notoriety begins to strain their relationship in the most literal way imaginable is both a smart gambit to lure a few more people to see your movie and kinda subversive. And that the sound design team deserves special praise for letting us hear only what she hears, as the voices of the visitors she wishes would leave her in peace, in her impossible M.C. Escher house, seem to waft in from every direction, like sound arising from the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, the livestock and all the wild animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground.