In the most recent Darren Aronofsky film, the audience may find itself becoming more empathetic to the wrath of God. “Mother!” is a head trip of a movie that is contained to a singular house but reaches for grand metaphysical truth. A story that is an environmental parable at heart but also well-versed in theology as it explores the nature of God. An explosive indictment of humanity that centrally revolves around the toxicity in which domineering men treat women and abuse them. The boiling anger all around the edges of this picture simmers at first until it builds into a mighty crescendo of rape, debauchery, theft and extreme violence. By the time the fiery apocalypse comes around at the conclusion, a fate that is hinted at from the very first frames of the film, the viewers may well have made their moral peace with this decisive act of judgment.
With these characteristics, “Mother!” probably will be the most controversial film of 2017. This conclusion will not just be limited to the thematic elements (though considerable) but also to whether or not the movie is good art. Rex Reed of the New York Observer for instance called Darren Aronofsky a “wack job” and ripped into the film: “But nothing he’s (Aronofsky) done before to poison the ozone layer prepared me for mother!, an exercise in torture and hysteria so over the top that I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh out loud. Stealing ideas from Polanski, Fellini and Kubrick, he’s jerrybuilt an absurd Freudian nightmare that is more wet dream than bad dream, with the subtlety of a chainsaw. This delusional freak show is two hours of pretentious twaddle that tackles religion, paranoia, lust, rebellion, and a thirst for blood in a circus of grotesque debauchery to prove that being a woman requires emotional sacrifice and physical agony at the cost of everything else in life, including life itself.” Some other reviews are not kind either but the movie (at posting of this blog) sits at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes with 201 positive reviews.
I bring up this negative critique as a warning that a good number of you reading this will probably hate this movie. I understand that as I would not characterize this as a movie I *liked* either. More like appreciated or found thought-provoking in the way that I could not stop thinking about it for days after watching. Probably a mistake to view this around Christmas time though.
Anyways, “Mother!” is set in a single house that is completely surrounded by a field and trees. There are no discernable driveways or paths leading up to the house. In this remote and simple setting live characters identified as Him (Javier Bardem) and Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). An Eden. The main characters are remodeling this remote home- creating if you will. Him is a once famous writer whose passion for authorship is waning.
One night there is a knock on the door at this remote house and we are introduced to Man (Ed Harris). Man has a story and loves Him’s work so Him offers to let him stay the night. The next day, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives. Mother is hesitant to let these people stay in the house, her conscience offering a stern warning. From this premise, as seemingly minor as it is, builds an entire cauldron of swirling destruction.
Aronofsky is playing here with creation, fall and apocalypse and then re-creation. He has also constructed a rather poignant environmental cautionary tale. To achieve his themes, Aronofsky (who also wrote the screenplay) uses familiar Biblical texts as allegories and metaphors. It is clear that Man and Woman are stand ins for Adam and Eve. After these guests overstay their welcome, warring brothers arrive (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) and there is a murder. Just like Cain and Abel.
So who are Him and Mother? Well, one interpretation could have this couple be a sort of Trinitarian stand in for the Divine. MAJOR SPOILERS AFTER THIS: Him is a Creator and an Author. Later, He becomes a Father. Mother is perhaps a conscience or a spirit and later in the film, she conceives a male child (Jesus was “conceived” by the Holy Spirit- Luke 1:35). The word “Spirit” in the Hebrew Bible is a feminine article. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2) Mother remarks to Woman early in the film that she is desiring to build a paradise.
The arrival of houseguests do not stop with Man, Woman and the two warring brothers. Soon a steady stream of humanity is arriving and with these masses, all the vileness that comes with the human condition (interpreted here by Aronofsky).
Mother is grief stricken, massively overwhelmed, and wants all of these people out of her house. She is also pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy. Wanting to shield the baby from the masses of humanity, she and Him lock themselves in an upstairs room. However, Him wants to share the child with the masses against Mother’s wishes. The crowd of people get their hands on the baby and begin passing the crying child around. In what becomes the epitome of the disturbing and horrific nature of this story, the baby boy is murdered in a sacrifice and the crowd starts eating his flesh. Sound familiar? END MAJOR SPOILER SECTION.
While Aronofsky was going for an allusion to the Trinity that doesn’t mean that everything necessarily fits according to the common ancient theology. The writer/ director is borrowing ideas from the doctrine in order to move his thematic goals forward. The most obvious interpretation of the Jennifer Lawrence character is that she represents Mother Nature herself.
Another sub-theme revolves around Lawrence’s feminine character. In his past movie “Black Swan”, Aronofsky crafted a film that used the famous ballet piece, “Swan Lake” to illustrate a feminist message (at least one interpretation but there is a lot going on in that movie). Culture imposes and demands that women fit into a particular mold and unfairly judges accordingly. These unattainable demands to perform in a specific way drove Natalie Portman’s character (Nina Sayers) into mental illness. In “Mother!”, men look to violate women and exercise dominion over them. In the film, the men grope and grab at Mother feeling entitled to her body. Obviously, this runs analogous to the larger theme of humanity feeling entitled over Mother Nature. Seizing and taking without any regard to sacredness, respect or responsibility.
Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have shot this film like a horror movie. Much of the camerawork is close-ups on the performers themselves. This style creates a claustrophobic sensation that is used in horror pictures because the audience cannot see a boogeyman jump out from the edges of the frame. The great tension that people feel while watching “Mother!” is something or someone could jump out at any time. However, rather then a sadistic slasher, a monster, a boogeyman or other supernatural force the antagonist and source of horror in this movie is humanity itself.
One read of Aronofsky’s career from his first film, “Pi” to “Mother!” is he enjoys triggering people. His stories are strong thematically and he has passionate rebukes to offer to our culture (especially see “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”). He offers no apologies for his tendency to smash the audience in the face with his messaging and to incorporate scenes which push the boundaries of shock. With “Mother!” he continues his trend of pulling no punches with a furious degree of escalation.
*Other Aronofsky movies I have reviewed: Noah
**Another review on “Mother!” that I found compelling by Alissa Wilkinson.