The actress is the firm center that allows the Darren Aronofsky film to never quite fly off the handle, at least until the climactic finale.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from mother!]
Over the past few years, Jennifer Lawrence has vaulted to the top of the A-list thanks to roles in genre fare like The Hunger Games and the X-Men franchise. But Lawrence’s breakout role, in the 2010 drama Winter’s Bone, suggested that her strengths far surpassed sci-fi/fantasy titles, as did her collaborations with writer-director David O. Russell in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. This weekend, Lawrence is stepping further away from comic books and YA dystopias, with her lead role in Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, displaying more of the intense, fierce commitment that marked her first major leading role.
As the eponymous Mother, Lawrence is onscreen for just about every moment of the film. (Aronofsky has said that Lawrence is in close-up for more than a full hour of the film’s 121 minutes.) The gradually increasing chaos in which she finds herself leads to Mother’s unraveling, much like the leads of Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream go down mental rabbit holes without returning to sanity. Here, Mother is trying to renovate the gorgeous house where she lives with her husband, Him (Javier Bardem), in the isolated countryside.
Him is a celebrated poet struggling on his latest work, and is all too pleased to welcome two strangers into their house, a similarly nameless husband and wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) who fawn over Him and largely ignore Mother. As she grows even lonelier and separated from Him, the Man and Woman, and their seemingly endless slew of guests who grow violent and disruptive, Mother has terrifying visions of the house bleeding from the inside, human organs clogging up toilets and more.
While Aronofsky’s style is both dominant and unavoidable in mother!, as marked by the jittery camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, it’s Lawrence who has the lion’s share of the burden. She’s in the middle of a three-film stint — including 2016’s futuristic romantic drama Passengers and the upcoming spy thriller Red Sparrow — where she’s stepping past the all-ages titles that have brought her worldwide fame.
Mother! suggests that Lawrence is in a new phase of her career. The film itself is a fascinatingly messy affair, mixing and matching allegorical ideas ranging from the toll of creating new art to something literally Biblical. But Lawrence, first appearing placid and agreeable, and eventually transforming into a figure of righteous fury, is the firm center that allows the film to never quite fly off the handle, at least until the climactic finale.
Her entree to cinematic plaudits, Winter’s Bone, allowed Lawrence to put up a fierce facade that only peeks out at the end of mother! So much of Aronofsky’s script demands that she be belittled, berated and literally beaten. (The latter occurs in a profoundly uncomfortable scene, more so because Lawrence’s commitment to the events onscreen make the violence against her truly wincing.) In some respects, Lawrence is following in the footsteps of Natalie Portman, who threw herself into the lead role of Aronofsky’s Black Swan and walked away with the best actress Oscar.
But this is the same level of dedication, the same unwavering talent, that was so bracing to behold in the otherwise disappointing Passengers. One of that film’s few highlights is the scene where her character, Aurora, experiences massive anguish upon learning that the nature of how she was woken up on a spaceship years ahead of schedule is a lie. All it takes is a few seconds for Lawrence to communicate how much pain Aurora feels upon this gut-punch revelation. (Arguably, it’s this commitment to the character that makes Aurora’s choice to forgive the man who woke her up so hollow.)
In mother!, Lawrence is playing a character who seems to exist solely to experience a massive mental and physical breakdown. Mother would be most content at home with Him, but once he lets in the Man and Woman, their solitude is at an end and her isolation begins. Guests descend upon their beautiful house like locusts in two very heightened sequences, the latter occurring after Mother has finally gotten pregnant and is just about to give birth. Even in the third act, when mother! goes gleefully off the rails — detailing here what happens once Mother gives birth would not be quite the same as experiencing it for yourself — Lawrence is an oddly grounding force.
Her character is a tragic figure, but there’s never a false note in her performance. Especially at its wildest moments, mother! needs Jennifer Lawrence to be the stable core. Mother does eventually crack; the whole film builds to her fracture turning into a messy break. As chaotic as the film is, without Lawrence, it would collapse instantly. As it is, this is an impressive step in the right direction for one of Hollywood’s next generation of movie stars.