Mother! (18) ****

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

With: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer

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Runtime: 121 minutes

THANK goodness Mother’s Day is long past. There are several reasons to suffer nightmares after watching Darren Aronofsky’s stripped to the bone horror. But this being September and not Spring, at least your reviewer does not have to worry about unsuspecting cinemagoers taking their mothers to the pictures in the expectation of seeing some cuddly family caper. That would be a big mistake. Huge. That jolly exclamation mark at the end of the title? Consider it a six foot tall shriek.

The director of Pi, The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream last ventured into horror territory with Black Swan, the story of a young dancer coming under the sway of a tyrannical ballet master and losing her mind. Mother! has at its heart another youthful heroine, with Jennifer Lawrence as a homemaker married to an older man (Javier Bardem). The two have bought an old house in the middle of nowhere, with Lawrence’s character, listed simply in the credits as Mother, painstakingly renovating the property. “I want to make a paradise,” she says. Meanwhile, Bardem’s character (“Him”), a poet, is struggling with a bad case of writer’s block.

The tranquility and wall to wall tastefulness of the couple’s lives is rudely interrupted one night by a knock on the door. There stands a doctor (played by Ed Harris) looking for a room. Mother is all for telling him to take a hike, but Him is delighted to have a distraction from the blank page and invites him to stay. The doctor soon proves a pain, smoking when Mother has told him not to, and the nightmare grows worse when the puffing doc’s rude wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up. “Why not just build a new house?” she asks Mother. Next to arrive are the couple’s quarrelling sons, upsetting the peace and furniture still further.

A woman attempting to make a heaven on Earth. A stream of strangers invading her space, treating the place like they own it. Black Swan might be the closest genre relative to Mother! but you might consider the picture’s nearest relation in subject matter is Aronofsky’s Noah. The writer-director is not so vulgar as to spell it all out for the audience, oh dear no, but in an approach that could irritate as many viewers as it persuades, Mother! delivers its message with all the relentlessness of a wrathful God releasing a flood upon the Earth. Orwell’s boot in the face is subtle in comparison.

It is testament to Aronofsky’s skills as a filmmaker, and his grade-A cast, that the viewer, despite suspecting they know where the film is headed, is caught utterly in his grip. As a horror director he goes for cheap but effective scares (characters popping up suddenly, blood on the walls, all that ham). More impressive is his ability to mine bleak comedy from the situation, as if this were some Halloween version of Abigail’s Party. After watching Mother! you will never look at someone perched on an unsupported kitchen sink top quite the same way again.

At the centre of it all, more of a magnet for the viewer’s attention than Aronofsky’s storytelling skills, is Lawrence. Already known for her versatility, Mother! sees her climb another head and shoulders above her peers. Whenever he can, Aronofsky fills the screen with her infinitely expressive face, her growing sense of distress impossible to look away from.

If not for Lawrence, indeed, Mother would be unbearable. By the halfway point the sense of dread, there from the first frame, is verging on too much. Even though on the surface hardly anything has happened, such is the direction of travel that we are left in no doubt that something wicked is this way coming.

This is not a film one enjoys. Warped, calculatedly shocking and sickening in parts, it is first and last a talker movie. At the end you may wish you had never seen it, but that won’t stop you hoping others take the chance just so you can argue about it later (particularly if they hate it). Probably best not to watch with mother though.