Movie reviews: Mother! is horrifying, Only Living Boy In New York is long-winded

Mother! is a horrifying tale of abuse filled with dream-like imagery, while The Only Living Boy In New York pales in comparison with a classic that has a similar plot

The exclamation point in Mother! (NC16, 121 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars) turns that word into a plea for help, a prayer to a maternal spirit, or a curse.

In this nightmarish fairy tale, writer-director Darren Aronofsky invokes all three meanings.

A nameless woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is the adoring spouse of a nameless man, played by Javier Bardem, who appears to be a writer stalled by creative block.

To her dismay, her monstrously egotistical husband invites a crew of crackpots into their home. Played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer and brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson, each person is more sinister and threatening than the last. But hubby is oblivious; where she sees a home invasion, he sees a cure for his artistic dry spell.

To say more about the story would be to betray one reading of this multi-layered work, ripe with dream-like imagery and heavy with symbolism.

Aronofsky is a humanist, leaning towards atheism, who is fascinated with the idea of religious faith and imagery. It's a field he covered in his first feature, Pi (1998), and most recently in his biblical epic, Noah (2014).

Jennifer Lawrence plays the adoring wife of a writer who has creative block in Mother!.
Jennifer Lawrence plays the adoring wife of a writer who has creative block in Mother!. PHOTO: UIP

Noah featured the patriarch, while Pi and The Fountain (2006) took the point of view of the prophet and shaman. This time, he is keen to look through the eyes of a goddess-like figure whose gifts are love and fertility - there are tableaus that invoke the Cain and Abel story, blood sacrifice, sectarian wars and the greatest maternal image in Western culture, the Pieta. What many might see as divine revelation, Aronofsky reshapes as a horrifying tale of mental and physical abuse, but one with a perverse beauty.

On to a less dream-like, and much duller, work.

A young man at loose ends has an affair with an older woman. His family suffers the fallout of that dalliance and, in its aftermath, he grows closer to a woman nearer his own age.

Callum Turner and Kate Beckinsale in The Only Living Boy In New York.
Callum Turner and Kate Beckinsale in The Only Living Boy In New York. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

This is the story in Mike Nichols' Oscar-winning 1967 comedy The Graduate and it is also in The Only Living Boy In New York (NC16, 89 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars). The newer film takes its title from a Simon & Garfunkel song, while the older one features Mrs Robinson, a song from the same duo.

If your film deliberately invites comparison with a classic of American cinema, then you must be extremely confident, or delusional. In this case, the latter is true.

A star-studded cast fails to save this long-winded drama about a millennial weighed down by several strains of affluenza - writer's block, family resentments and lovers' quarrels. Thomas (Callum Turner) is angry at nothing and everything, choosing to live in a dump over the objections of his wealthy father (Pierce Brosnan) and mother (Cynthia Nixon).

He becomes friends with new neighbour W.F. Gerald, played by Jeff Bridges, in his frequently used Inscrutable Elder Shaman guise, though this time, he speaks with a less froggy tone.

Marc Webb, helmer of romance-tinged comedy-dramas Gifted (2017) and 500 Days Of Summer (2009), struggles to inject a sexual charge into this work.

Turner, as the petulant, privileged scion slumming his way to artistic fulfilment, and the oddly frozen Kate Beckinsale as Johanna, his older lover, have the sexual chemistry of a wet rag.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'Of dreams and delusions'. Print Edition | Subscribe