Mother! Might Just Be the Horror Film of the Year

What’s On Phnom Penh reviews Darren Aronofski’s disturbing, allegorical nightmare, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, which opens in cinemas in Phnom Penh tonight.

A delicate young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is desperate to create a “paradise” for her family by restoring her husband’s home after it was destroyed in a fire. Her husband (Javier Bardem) – an older, impulsive, self-interested artist – oscillates between worshipping, rejecting and betraying her, continually inviting drama and chaos into their sanctuary against her will… and wrecking it, piece by piece, until the bloody, horrifying conclusion.

Nauseatingly unnerving, the Black Swan director’s latest film – a psychological horror of sorts – is a masterclass of tension. The spare script and impeccable sound design leave acres of silence, punctuated by flashes of violence, and Lawrence suffuses her role with palpable vulnerability; you flinch for her with each cruel word thrown her way, each invader that storms into her home and upends her tranquility, each wilful destruction of the world she has lovingly built.

For all the effectiveness of the production, though, Aronofsky reportedly wrote the script in just five days, and it shows: it has the frenzied, occasionally unfinished feel of someone struggling to record every detail of a dissipating dream. This becomes clear in the final act, where the film abandons any thread of realism and becomes purely allegorical – which, while jarring, just about works until the disappointing decision to “reveal” what the lead characters represent in the final scenes.

The ambiguity that runs through the film until this point is far more powerful and compelling, weaving together ideas about power and control, a retelling of the book of Genesis, abuse of love and innocence, the brutal effect of reality on hopes, dreams and our attempts to be free and autonomous, and the question of what kind of creativity we value – specifically, disdain for anything that is nurturing or a labour of love, vs that created for public performance, which here is more celebrated, even when it’s less sincere.

In Mother! this struggle is gendered. As the title implies, the lead character is defined by her traditional role; her skills, gifts and endless, family-orientated work are solely for the benefit of her husband, who accepts everything she offers without gratitude, before throwing it away or allowing it to be destroyed. The poet, meanwhile, is consumed by fame and spectacle, engineering emotionally charged situations purely to feed off them in his work, while demanding that she give up everything she holds dear to his baying hordes of fans.

Sexuality also threatens the purity of her perfect world. Visitors fuck openly in spare bedrooms; a seductive older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who refuses to leave, taunts her that her husband will lose interest if she doesn’t spice things up. Not-so-subtle vagina imagery appears over and over again, in unzipped bags or blood pooling between wooden floorboards that crumble in the centre, always birthing some new terror, vision or knowledge that chips away at her innocence and her state of mind.

This is a complex, cerebral but relentlessly compelling film, rich in symbolism, and probably Aronofsky’s most ambitious project to date. While it unravels a little towards the end (while trying too hard to dictate its audience’s response), it’s an impressive, disturbing and occasionally shocking film that elevates the horror form to new levels, and which will play on your mind for months to come.

Mother! opens at 9.15pm on Friday 15th September at Major Cineplex, Aeon Mall.

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