The startling, audacious new what-the-hell-is-it? from writer-director Darren Aronofsky aims to fry our nerves and get us thinking deep thoughts about the catastrophic state of our world. It does one of those things with cold, masochistic brilliance. The other? Well, let’s see.

Our two main characters are a nameless Him (Javier Bardem), a culty poet who lost his wife and home in a deadly fire, and his much younger, far less experienced wife. Shades of Rebecca? You bet. The wife, identified in the credits only as Mother and fearlessly played by Jennifer Lawrence, has thrown herself into the painstaking restoration of every inch of their old home—gorgeously remote, surrounded by acres of fields and lean on phone service. It ain’t Manderley but, for a woman-in-jeopardy psycho thriller, it will do. From the start, Mother is vibrant, loving, sensuous; she waits on her husband hand and foot. She’s always scrubbing, cleaning, fixing, cooking—essentially creating a shrine for him to create good work again. She’s like a goodhearted version of the feverishly house-proud heroine of Craig’s Wife. Meanwhile, he’s a loutish, insular, dismissive, moody, self-absorbed “artist” in the throes of a creative crisis.

And then one night, change comes a-knocking at the door. The knocker is an odd, sickly man (Ed Harris) who proffers some half-baked story about how he was led to believe he’d arrived at a bed and breakfast. Harris reveals himself to be an orthopedic surgeon and a big fan of the poet’s work. Soon enough, the men are laughing, drinking, bonding. His ego stoked, Bardem’s character is strangely willing to have the stranger to stay the night; his wife is justifiably put off by the intrusion. The next day, the surgeon’s beautiful wife—Woman, of course—arrives, a mouthy, aggressive, highly sexual Michelle Pfeiffer (in fierce, funny good form). She wastes no time prodding Mother with rude questions, e.g. Don’t you want children? and I mean, look at you—why isn’t he all over you? There is a lot of talk about babies, pregnancy and the act that results in pregnancy and babies. Meanwhile, Mother is occasionally overcome by fits of dizziness and malaise that send her running for her bathroom, where she downs a glowing yellow powder mixed into water. Is she ill? Is she an addict? Is she trying to get pregnant? Is she crackers? The tone and emotional dynamics suggest the influence of Rosemary’s Baby as obviously and deliberately as this poster does.

Later, at Pfeiffer’s invitation, her two Cain and Abel-worthy sons (real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) explode onto the scene and then … well, we’re solidly sharing Lawrence’s nightmare of quiet domesticity upended by chaos, violence and surrealistic horror. In the tradition of Repulsion, Rebecca, Gaslight and dozens of other torture-the-woman melodramas, almost anything awful that can happen to her does, so much so that, at one particularly bloody point, the violence feels almost shockingly anti-woman. A downstairs furnace that beckons her looks like the gates of Hell. She hears rustling in the walls and we see what looks like a malevolent, necrotic beating heart. A grisly something-or-other gets lodged in a toilet. Corrosive bloodstains mysteriously soak the carpets. Holes in the shape of vaginas gape in the floor. Masterful cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s roving handheld camera sticks to Lawrence like glue, creating palpable paranoia and claustrophobia. Ditching a music score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, the director opts for a wall-to-wall aural design that creeps the hell out of you.

As more and more uninvited guests arrive, the movie takes on a jaw-dropping, utterly horrifying end-of-the-world comic edge that’s reminiscent of the surrealistic, religion-skewering films of Luis Buñuel in the glory days of Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel. Images recalling Occupy Wall Street, riots, police violence and Fellini-level religious mania ignite the screen. Lawrence isn’t given much to say, nor is she given much of a character, but she fills in most of the blanks with her radiance, her hopefulness, her touching need to be seen and heard. And it’s clear that Aronofsky is with her all the way.

Make no mistake: Mother! is no ordinary snack-food horror flick. Aronofsky and company have served up a big, full banquet, although some of the fare is clearly junk food and empty calories. The movie may drive horror fans straight up the wall. It’s nowhere near as frightening as, say, the director’s own Black Swan; there are no real stings or jump scares. The thrills are more on the order of Jonathan Glazer’s arty Under the Skin than, say, The Conjuring or Paranormal Activity. This one is a very, very slow burn, engineered to transgress, frustrate and even infuriate. Laughing out loud and recoiling in silent horror both seem appropriate responses. It’s pretentious, baffling, daring, gorgeous, crackpot, out of its head and exhausting—you know, the way stuff like The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Birds struck so many people on first exposure.

For the love of Mike, stay through the credits, if only to listen to Patti Smith take on an old Skeeter Davis hit that feels like the overripe cherry atop a gooey, seductive and poisonous sundae. Bravo, Mr. Aronofsky and bravo everyone who helped birth something as insane and personal as Mother! into our cookie-cutter world.


Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.