Darren Aronofsky's mother! is superbly crafted -- and confounding. It defies easy description. It's not the kind of film you can simply call "good" or "bad," though its technique -- sound design, production design, cinematography, editing -- is certainly top-notch, instantly award-worthy. And while the film's idiosyncratic journey into surrealistic nightmare doesn't make it easy to recommend, the adventurous might find it rewarding. It begins as a deeply unsettling, extraordinarily acted chamber piece. The central couple (Lawrence, Bardem) are in an idyllic location, but there's subtle tension in their relationship as the husband struggles with his work. External forces (in the form of Harris and Pfeiffer, to start) threaten their equilibrium but also invigorate them. Aronofsky's script is purposefully underwritten to allow space for actors at the top of their game to show a great deal by relating to each other. And, just as much is unsaid, much is unseen: Meticulously arranged shots allow figures barely into the frame, creating tension as we peer around corners, down long halls, through doorways. The expertly crafted soundscape places audiences inside the beautiful and terrifying old house.
In its later stages, the film escalates in every way. Its earlier movements are marked by finely tuned ratcheting up of everything; it all occurs by degrees. As the cocoon shatters, so does reality. Without giving too much away, mother! becomes an all-out cinematic assault, for better or worse. It's a highly metaphorical film, but to discuss what its underlying themes reveal themselves to be would ruin the experience for those who haven't seen it. In a director's note, Aronofsky says this "fever dream" script "poured out of" him in five days. That's both easy and hard to believe. It has the insanity of dream logic, as well as the haggard free-association of a subconscious bombarded by news reports, phone alerts, and Hurricane Sandy, as the note cites. On the other hand, the film's execution is so precise, so expert that it feels too painstakingly layered to be spontaneous, even as it becomes more surreal. "Fever dream" is the right description for this dazzling display of cinematic skill that veers into madness.