Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday on a massive wave of hysteria from its Venice debut. There, the thriller had been acclaimed as the most extreme, deranged, over-the-top film of the director’s career, an act of provocation so deliciously excessive that it seemed all but guaranteed to also become the talk of TIFF.
Eager viewers lined up along Richmond Street an hour ahead of the film’s 9 a.m. start time for its first press and industry screening. And two hours later, they staggered out of the Scotiabank into the harsh light, blinking and wondering, “Why didn’t they warn us?”
They did warn us, of course. But nothing really prepares you to experience “mother!” Aronofsky, who has built his films to gloriously excessive finales in the past — think of the horrifying montage of abuse and degradation in “Requiem for a Dream” or the bloody balletic fever dream of “Black Swan” — plays a personal game of “can you top this?” with “mother!” And holy hell does he do it, in an extended sequence that reimagines “Stardust Memories” as “Night of the Living Dead.”
The setup is straightforward: Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman married to a celebrated poet, who is played by Javier Bardem. He has a bad case of writer’s block, she’s fixing up their remote house in the country, and things seem fine until Ed Harris shows up at the door, followed by Michelle Pfeiffer, followed by lots of other people.
The opening stretch of the movie reinforces a lot of the time-honored horror-movie axioms: “Don’t go in the basement,” “Don’t bother trying to scrub away that bloodstain” and one new one, “If a sketchy guy shows up at your door, don’t invite him to spend the night — and if you do invite him to stay, and then his wife shows up and then his kids show up and there’s a big fight and somebody dies and then he wants to invite a few more friends and family over, for God’s sake say no!”
The first half of the film is creepy and disturbing, but the second half cranks the whole crazy thing into overdrive, conjuring up a blood-and-fire drenched hallucination set in motion by the instant success of the poet’s new book. (It seems the craziness of the first half jarred him out of his writer’s block.)
Part of the message is that fame turns people into beasts and the need for approval can be a deadly disease, but Aronofsky also designed the film as an allegory of how we destroy our own Mother Earth. But you won’t be absorbing the metaphors as much as you’ll be astounded by the film’s wholehearted commitment to a world in which an impromptu book-signing can escalate into a scene from Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
But this is really Aronofsky’s singular vision, executed with spine-tingling commitment by Jennifer Lawrence, who is the center of almost every shot.
“mother!” is not necessarily the stuff for awards, with more than a few Academy voters likely recoiling from the extremity of Aronofsky’s work. Still, you don’t make a movie about the dangers of adulation because you want to win shiny trophies. For its combination of ambition and audacity, this is a glorious piece of cinematic insanity.