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Movie review: Jarring, pretentious 'Mother!' falls off a cliff

Mother!; 115 min; Rated R

“Mother!” opens with a wide shot of an octagonal Victorian house, isolated, set in a bucolic field, surrounded by grass with trees in the distance. It’s imposing yet neglected, beautiful but a bit ominous. The inhabitants are a couple, known simply as Mother and Him (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem). She is young, beautiful, and committed to him and to the interior restoration of the house. He is older, a famous poet, troubled by writer’s block, passing his days holding a pen over a blank sheet of paper.

The impression, the tease as it were, is that this will be a film about a relationship that is harmonious but also stressed by Bardem’s contentious moods caused by his inability to even begin to find the words that apparently once came so readily.

Lawrence, lovely, almost Madonnaesque in her natural, open beauty, spends her days painting and patching and encouraging her husband, trying to reassure him that he will find the lines, the inspiration.

One evening the doorbell rings and it’s a man (Ed Harris) who, seeming confused, is reluctant to impose on them. He tells them that he was told that their house is a bed and breakfast. Encouraged by Bardem to stay, a sense of menace, ever so slight, enters with the man, and Lawrence’s nudging alarm is evident as she resists his presence, telling her husband that he is a stranger and why wouldn’t he consult her first.

The next morning, the man’s wife arrives and is also asked to stay by Bardem, clearly delighted to hear that they know his work and are much impressed by his fame.

What might have been a subtle and interesting study of two marriages is something else: The man and his wife are intrusive, she especially, and suddenly seem reluctant to leave, though Lawrence insists. Bardem is smitten by their flattery, and his narcissism overrules his wife’s reluctance and need for privacy.

But that is not where writer/director Darren Aronofsky is headed. This is not a psychological drama. He soon moves into what I felt was an indulgent, punishing direction that becomes a collision of initial expectations and what soon seems an obscure and strange and alarming series of vignettes that are barely connected. The story falls off a cliff into meaninglessness, layered with a gothic sensibility that is jarringly pretentious.

Finally, the narrative morphs into a visual assault that cannot be rescued by anything resembling metaphor or allegory. It is harrowing and grueling to watch, almost as if it were a betrayal of the audience who at least initially agreed to enter into Aronofsky’s narrative willingly, and then has the rug pulled out from underneath them, so to speak. And in a kind of bizarre denouement, “Mother!” raises its freak flag up a burning pole as Lawrence does battle with a home invasion.

If there is a saving grace to this film, it’s the performance of Lawrence. She delivers a master class in acting with countless tight shots of her being swept into a nightmare, her disbelief and shock writ large in her frantic expressions.

Her increasingly impotent attempts at coherence are submerged by the surrounding chaos of events that are beyond her comprehension. Ditto the audience. I endured the film until the credits rolled and was happy to escape what I judged to be a story that in the third act, most especially, implodes.