Making ‘Mother!,’ the Year’s Most Divisive Film

The dark lord materialized moments later. It’s not an ill-fitting nickname, at least cinematically. On screen Mr. Aronofsky has conjured up all manner of ghoulish misbehavior and grotesqueries in “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan.” “Mother!,” an ambitious parable hidden in a horror flick, tops them easily. What starts as a home invasion-psychological thriller ends in flaming nightmare surrealism, stuffed with themes that divided, and mystified, critics.

“‘Mother!’ will likely be 2017’s most hated movie,” declared the Verge, while others called it “brilliant” and “an unparalleled achievement.” “It’s a hoot!” A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times.

With a reported $30 million budget and an artistic sensibility usually reserved for the indie crowd, it’s a wild gamble as a major release for its studio, Paramount, especially on the heels of “It,” Warner Bros.’s more traditional, and decipherable, horror blockbuster. Even with the benefit of two Oscar winners in a usually surefire genre, and the frisson of a romance between the director and the leading lady, “Mother!” underperformed its modest box office estimates after opening Sept. 15. But if it alienates mass audiences, it could also be the slow-burn conversation piece of the year, with high-profile defenders including Anthony Bourdain, the “Star Wars” director Rian Johnson and Chris Rock.

On the surface, it’s about a couple, Ms. Lawrence and Javier Bardem, in a rambling, secluded Victorian house. He’s a poet, with one major hit but troubled by writer’s block; she is renovating their home, forever tidying up. Their placid life is dismantled by hordes of uninvited guests who won’t leave. All the symbolism — packed like a Russian nesting doll, with religious iconography, celebrity culture and military-industrial-state overtones — is in service of one grander idea, the allegory that moved Mr. Aronofsky to write the script in an uncharacteristically prolific five-day stretch. “I just pounded through it, kind of like a fever dream,” he said.

But the allegory seems to have eluded many viewers, and Mr. Aronofsky and Ms. Lawrence disagreed about how much to reveal. “He wants people to go in blind,” she said, which she felt was a shame. “You’re going to miss all of the detail and all of the brilliance behind the whole movie,” she said. “My advice is to understand the allegory.”

Mr. Aronofsky favored an unsuspecting…

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