Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Middle-aged, unnamed poet (Javier Bardem) and his equally nameless, half-his-age wife (Jennifer Lawrence) inhabit a huge rural home that’s just the wrong side of creepy. He struggles ineffectually with writer’s block while she puts all her efforts into fixing-up the house where – it is more than hinted – his previous family was wiped out in a property-gutting conflagration.
“I want to make it a paradise”, she tells uninvited visitors Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. But heaven will have to wait.
Hell is other people, and they are arriving in force in Aronofsky’s frequently maddening, occasionally mesmerising fable of celebrity dynamics and contemporary idol-worship. Each outsider’s actions, or Lawrence’s reactions to them, are triggers that cause yet more people to descend on the house. Superficially, they emerge from beyond the encircling woods, but it feels more like they creep out of the charred woodwork that keeps threatening to burst through Lawrence’s futile efforts to plaster over the cracks. At times the bloody gashes that open in woodwork and walls feel like a nod to Videodrome, Cronenberg’s 1993 media nightmare, though towards the end it has more in common with The Raid (2011).
For most of its two hour running time, the script and direction just about mesh well enough to sustain the necessary suspension of disbelief, even when the film’s trajectory becomes a repetitive spiralling descent. But as annoying visitors give way to screeching, scratching harpies and then to scenes that play like the love-child of Dante and Hieronymus Bosch, the script peters out. Aronofsky seems to lose control of the pacing, Lawrence’s reactions can’t quite keep up with the helter-skelter ride to hell she’s on, and at the moment when we should be feeling most horrified, it starts to feel vaguely comedic, in a Life of Brian (1979) “This is His gourd!” sort of way.
There’s also a problem with the foregrounding of clues that bookend the movie: an opening sequence of transformation is repeated at the end as if to say “Get it? Get it?”, while the styling of the end-titles (every character name in lower case only, apart from Bardem’s “Him”) supports the suspicion that those leading the production have lost confidence in their product, or their audience, or both.