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Image: Paramount Pictures

Darren Aronofsky has never shied from ambition. His first movie, Pi, managed to present a unified theory of the universe despite its miniscule budget; Requiem for a Dream remains the loudest public service announcement ever made. Aronofsky’s follow-up was supposed to see Brad Pitt hop through 1,000 years of history in a quest for eternal life. (I remember reading early reports about a section set in outer space and envisioning something like 2001: A Space Odyssey on amphetamines.) That project eventually crumbled under its own weight—it would emerge a decade later on a significantly smaller scale as The Fountain—but it was an early signal that maybe Aronofsky was, perhaps, a little crazy.

His newest, Mother!, is his most personal, fully realized vision yet: an unhinged, hallucinatory, often baffling take on “Creation.” The first third plays as a frantic rework of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, where a nameless young housewife (Jennifer Lawrence) struggles to retain her psychological footing against the inexplicable—and potentially malevolent—behavior of her nameless older husband (Javier Bardem). She’s thrown her entire being into restoring the man’s bucolic, childhood home after a fire reduced it to ashes. He, meanwhile, suffers from debilitating writers’ block that sends him into mercurial solitude. Spurred by the curious arrival of an ill-mannered drifter (Ed Harris) and his slinky-temptress wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), the woman’s grip begins to deteriorate. (Even more curious is her husband’s absurd embrace of the awful houseguests.)

It’s a feverishly paranoid setup, one from which the movie violently derails itself. After a flash of simmering resentments, a dual miracle plants a child in the wife’s womb and an idea in the writer’s head. She nurtures life while he scribbles his masterpiece. Those dueling conceptions of creation combust in a frenzied melee that rapidly escalates into a sweeping, berserk apocalypse in their living room. From the kitchen, fundamentalist cults and anarcho-terrorists rage against a full-scale military assault; a riot of biblical proportion occupies most of the second floor.

There’s something simultaneously magnetic and vulgar about Aronofsky’s nakedly literalist confession, itself equal parts self-loathing and solipsism. As much contempt as the movie has for raging patriarchy, its humorlessness betrays a certain complicity in its own havoc. There’s no doubt with whom the movie’s sympathy lies, but there’s something telling about its underlying nihilism too. In Mother!’s apocalyptic revelation, the only constant is torment.

Which torment, the movie asks, holds greater value: that of the creator of art or the creator of life? That that question takes the form of a battle of the sexes is bizarrely reductive, especially alongside the movie’s cosmic ambition. By conflating a revisionist take on the New Testament with his own creative struggle, Aronofsky’s apologia plays less as atonement than genuine engagement, as if he’s still working through this stuff. (His corrective challenge to New Testament-mandated forgiveness is an unintentionally outrageous hoot.) There’s nothing charitable in this hysterical defense of matriarchal harmony.

Still, one can’t help but marvel at Aronofsky’s lunatic conviction. Mother! is an extraordinarily singular creation, and its technical prowess almost excuses its shamelessness. (The frame, which rarely strays from Lawrence’s immediate orbit, catches bursts of furtive movement in its own corners, a stunt mimicked in the meticulously excessive sound design.) Given Aronofsky’s mastery of the shock image—there’s a trick with a light bulb here that rivals the drill in Pi–his willingness to disregard convention is commendable. That he does so, however, at the sake of his audience leaves Mother! as a near-impenetrable dive into Aronofsky’s own outsized ego. Is anything less tolerable than ambitious narcissism?

Mother! Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and Ed Harris. Opens in Kansas City September 15, 2017.

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