The film begins with the image of a woman engulfed in flames, one single tear falling from her eye. “mother” (intentionally lowercased) appears onscreen, followed, with effect, by the “!.” As the title fades away, the exclamation point lingers onscreen — effectively punctuating every scene to follow (i.e. Put a mental exclamation point after every, single sentence I write in this story and that would be about the experience of viewing mother! I won’t, for readability’s sake.)
Jennifer Lawrence plays a housewife, introverted and observational in a way we’ve not yet seen the actress, who is married to an acclaimed poet (Javier Bardem) crippled by writer’s block. The couple lives in an idyllic rural manse, seemingly far removed from society and which Lawrence’s character has meticulously restored, room-by-room, after it burned down and Bardem’s character, we’re vaguely told, “lost everything.” (The 20-year age difference between the two is addressed away in a single line: “Your wife? I thought it was your daughter…”)
One evening, a strange man (Ed Harris) shows up on their doorstep under ill-defined pretenses — he thought the house was a bed and breakfast, he says — but is invited to stay by Bardem. The next day, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, unannounced, and promptly makes herself at home.
If the movie has been advertised as a happy couple whose lives are plunged into madness upon the arrival of a mysterious couple, that’s not quite right. Mother and Him (as Lawrence and Bardem are billed in the end credits) begin their story at a place of tension, though the madness does come. The first half of the story plays like a Gothic parlour piece, all simmering tension and concealed glances as Mother accommodates the increasingly intrusive Man and Woman (Harris and Pfeiffer). Pfeiffer, in particular, provides the film with a jolt of energy, sensual and antagonizing, and scenes that have her playing opposite Lawrence are of the best in mother!
And then the stranger’s twin sons (brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) arrive, and then more unexpected houseguests arrive, and then and then and then, until Mother’s home is teeming with people and it becomes almost comical how much these outsiders invade the couple’s life. (Get! Off! Her! Sink!) It’s a riff on a home invasion thriller, though everyone arrives in perfectly polite fashion.
All the while, there is the intrigue of Mother’s home itself (with which she has a sort of symbiotic relationship) and the banging and clanging that so often takes place right off-screen. You can see the influence of horror films like The Exorcist and Psycho and inevitable comparisons to The Strangers or a prestigious riff on American Horror Story will be apt. But again, that is just part of mother!
“I thought the home invasion movie was very interesting, because everyone relates to having a bad guest who won’t get out of the house when the parties over,” Aronofsky told ET. “So, I knew turning that into a nightmare would be an interesting place to start. Then there was this bigger idea going on of thinking about our planet [Earth] as our home and taking the spirit of that home, Mother Nature, and sticking her in one house and seeing how all these uninvited guests start to treat her.”