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Writer-director Darren Aronofsky contains the horrors of the world in one house

Photo: Jennifer Lawernce plays Mother in her new film

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival has a documentary devoted to guitarist Eric Clapton (“Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars”), which I’m sadly going to be unable to see. I tend to seek out these musician’s tales, hungry for a glimpse inside their beautiful minds, but the scheduling gods just won’t let me solve the complex puzzle of trying to fit this title in among the 40 others I will catch before I leave the festival.

I bring Clapton up for a peculiar reason. I recall the legendary stories from the 1960s and 70s about graffiti scrawled on the walls of London proclaiming him to be a god due to his guitar prowess. Slow Hand, another nickname he acquired along the way, was indeed a master of the stroke, but walking out of a festival screening of “Mother!,” the new Darren Aronofsky film, it seems that Clapton has been replaced. Aronofsky’s feverish horror story is a dripping wet and quite sticky message that Javier Bardem is the brand-new deity around these parts and he’s more than a tad bit frustrated with his work.

Who Bardem actually is, in the film, doesn’t really matter, and we know this because he’s never given a name. Referred to simply as “Him,” we see and appreciate the man through the eyes of his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), also never blessed with a label other than “Mother,” although that’s just on the Internet Movie Database. For ease and comfort, let’s just go along with that, shall we?

Mother is young, beautiful, and quite dutiful, taking care of any and all concerns around the house, while her husband has nothing else to worry about other than his writing. You see, he’s a respected poet with writer’s block and he’s having a dreadful time getting over it. He would rather not think about it, but it’s all his worried and watchful wife reminds him of, in between her work on the house and weird instances where she seems to commune with the house empathically. She touches the walls and senses a beating heart, picks at the floorboards and draws blood, which I suppose explains why she’s so suited to rebuild the massive estate.

Her work is hindered by the unannounced arrival of a mysterious man (Ed Harris), claiming to be a doctor who is in need of shelter and anything that can stop his nagging cough. The man knows the work of the writer, professing to be a devoted follower of his word. In a matter of hours, he has insinuated himself into the writer’s good graces, sharing stories that inspire the wandering creative spirit of the writer. And then the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) enters the mix, with a boozy blunt air, which challenges Mother’s dominion.

The horrors of Aronofsky’s world have little to do with the traditional scares and found footage trends that have come to dominate the nightmares of the 21st century. And don’t look for the superhuman slashers behind the masks that spring up at summer camps or during All Hallows Eve. I’m not even sure Aronofsky’s all that interested in messing with our minds as we slip into slumber. “Mother!” is a fevered piece of pop psychology with its aim set on the apocalypse. It is as if he’s been digging in the cinematic crates and decided to place “Children of Men” on one turntable and “The Fountain” on another. His cutting and scratching is less about finding a groove; instead he’s ratcheting up the tension, every second, refusing to allow us the chance to soak any single frame of reference in. This is horror filmmaking by osmosis. Science tells us that we will take in what we need, whether we know it or not.

It is plain to see though that Bardem’s writer is a modern-day god, a giving creator who longs to be adored by all and loved by one. That is his gift and his curse. Truth be told, that trait is the devil inside him, which he, for all his omnipotence and omniscience, cannot see and appreciate about himself. Mother sees it all though, and her reward is to be cast as the fall guy in this wicked creation tale, which Lawrence plays to the hilt. And why not? It’s nothing new. Women do all the work and men take the credit, right?

Rating: R Grade: A