JENNIFER Lawrence and Javier Bardem have to work hard not to be upstaged by the haunted house in Darren Aronofsky's operatic nightmare.
Haemorrhaging floorboards, organ-sucking toilet bowls, pulsating walls... the elegant but isolated abode has more tricks up its sleeve than your average co-star. And it flogs them shamelessly.
Being old pros, its human counterparts don't try to compete.
Instead, the Oscar-winning duo complement the haunted house's potentially melodramatic excess by playing their characters fairly straight.
It's a smart move and one that keeps the audience guessing - long after the apocalyptic end.
This might be the appropriate place for an important disclaimer: Mother! is not a film for moviegoers who like their loose ends neatly tied up.
Aronofsky has put his money on the entrails-sifting nerds and film buffs who devote countless column inches to what it all means.
I remain to be convinced that this would be time wisely spent. But whether you like the film or loathe it, you can be damn sure you won't have seen anything like it.
The titular character (Lawrence) devotes most of her energy to keeping her domestic environment running smoothly - which in the circumstances is no easy task.
The capable but increasingly uneasy beauty is quite literally a homemaker.
While he, or rather Him (Javier Bardem), grapples with a debilitating case of writer's block, she tiptoes around his fragile ego, cooking meals, cleaning up.
Her main project, apart from Him, is the loving restoration of their shared home - she's rebuilding his former life from the ashes, pretty much brick by brick, after it was razed in a fire.
The delicate equilibrium of their lives is upset by the arrival of a stranger (Ed Harris), who turns out to be one of the author's fans.
His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives the next morning, followed by their two sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), one of whom is killed almost immediately in an act of jealous fratricide.
And at this point, Aronofsky is just warming up.
After the funeral, Mother succeeds in temporarily clearing her home of the acolytes, most of whom barely acknowledge her presence, and finally becomes pregnant.
The happy event leads to a brief period of respite.
But Bardem's character appears to be suffering from some kind of messiah complex - the author as ultimate creator perhaps.
He can't survive without adulation. And hers is no longer enough.
Impending fatherhood, or perhaps the physical evidence of his own virility, unblocks his creative powers.
When his next novel is published, he welcomes the admiring hordes into his home - and all hell breaks loose.
In a market dominated by safe, formula filmmaking, it's thrilling to go on an unsignposted journey with a director who has this much talent.
Much of the ride is rich and engrossing, but somewhere along the way (and I'm guessing it's before the baby is sacrificed), Aronofsky takes a wrong turn.
The final destination feels more like a dead end.
Mother! opens in cinemas tomorrow.
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhall Gleeson.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Verdict: 3.5 stars
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