mother! hits theaters Sept. 15.
Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!Credit: Paramount Pictures
Credit: Paramount Pictures

According to production notes, director Darren Aronofsky wrote the script for mother!, his new horror movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, while holed up alone for five days. You can only imagine what he might have produced if he’d worked straight through the weekend.

mother!, a highly secret project that caused jaws to drop, stomachs to hop and eyes to roll when it was sprung on audiences at the Venice Film Festival, is cruel, delirious and slammingly effective. It, the Stephen King movie currently owning the U.S. box office, is scary. mother! is terrifying.

Lawrence plays a nameless woman who’s in the process of lovingly restoring the remote, fire-ravaged country house she shares with her poet husband (Javier Bardem), likewise nameless. “I want to make a paradise,” she says. She gets points for trying — the finished rooms look vaguely Tuscan — but Aronofsky (Black Swan) delivers his heroine to hell.

Her journey to the bad place has commenced even as the movie begins: Bardem, we learn, is very famous, but at the moment lacking inspiration. You would think Lawrence, who looks like someone Botticelli would gladly pose on a half-shell, would be muse enough. Apparently not. Instead, Mr. Poet has a way of wandering off into the surrounding fields and forests in the morning, leaving Lawrence to peer out windows and doorways in a state of consternation and dismay as she wonders what he’s up to. (Aronofsky, however, seldom lets us venture outside the house: mother! is as claustrophobic as any horror movie by Roman Polanski or David Cronenberg.)

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Bardem also seems overly invested in the talismanic powers of a chunk of crystal, roughly the size of one of the late Elizabeth Taylor’s diamonds, that he gives pride of place in the upstairs study to which he retreats and where he gets nothing done.

Then the couple is visited by two malevolent strangers—a husband and wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer (catty and funny) and Ed Harris (hollow-cheeked and unnerving)—who stay on to cause mischief, very much like the more worldly, aging characters who turn up unannounced in plays by Edward Albee. Separately and together, the two of them drink too much, vomit, smoke, cough in a medically alarming way, break things, drop burning pans on the floor and make snide innuendo about sex, marriage and babies. (Their hosts are childless.) Lawrence, perhaps understandably insulted that Harris says he initially assumed the house was a bed-and-breakfast, wants Bardem to throw them out. Bardem, for some reason, finds them delightful.

And then others turn up. And others.

Meanwhile, Lawrence is coping with discreet paranormal and maybe psychological disturbances. A lightbulb explodes with blood. She has visions that something is pulsing within the very walls of the house. She glimpses what looks like either a human heart or (this is conjecture) a dead hermit crab disappearing down the toilet. And the noisily “gotcha!” furnace in the basement keeps making her jump as if she were Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.

This summary may make mother! sound like a comedy, but some writers have a habit of falling back on jokes when they’re called upon to make sense of something this strangely threatening, amorphous and portentous. (Is it really necessary, for instance, to leave out names for the characters altogether? Would Rosemary’s Baby have put audiences in the same stranglehold of paranoia if it were simply called Her Baby?) Even less helpfully, Aronofsky has said that the resulting film is some kind of metaphor—an accommodatingly baggy one—for ecological disaster and political upheaval. You can throw in just about anything, including your bad credit score, and it will fit.

But mother! is definitely a horror movie, and I can tell you exactly at which point it becomes one: When Lawrence notices still more unwelcome guests starting to paint the walls she herself intended to paint, and she can’t make them stop. They won’t obey. She has no control. It’s the Sorcerer’s Apprentice of home reno. From here, mother! tilts into pure chaos—and violation—as the woman is overwhelmed by a rising tide of surreal, outrageous violence. The movie, in fact, doesn’t just go over the top. It goes over the tops of tops. Yet, having more or less exploded, it suddenly contracts, shrinking down to a surprising yet gruesomely satisfying conclusion that, if anything, gets its power not from allegory or metaphor but from the dark narrative threads of much older myths and fairytales.

There’s no real suspense in mother!, just the awful sensation of watching a story unfold in such a way that when it reaches an end you realize that everything was foreordained, and that maybe you knew that from the get-go.

Lawrence’s exceptionally moving performance, the one subtle thing here, is probably all that makes the film bearable. It’s because of the sympathy we feel for her — for her trusting nature, and maybe her foolishness — that mother! can’t be ignored as a director’s cabin-fever art project. Mostly shot in closeups that emphasize her oval-faced beauty, Lawrence is almost an idealized image of romance here, with her eyes full of dreams. But those dreams, to quote an old pop song, are just clouds in her coffee. Then a growing awareness and horror transform her. She realizes that she’s truly home alone.

mother! hits theaters Sept. 15.