Nothing is as it seems in Darren Aronofsky’s relentlessly sinister religious parable mother! A jet-black tone poem about artistic and biological creation (and the entire span of history no less), mother! is Arofonsky firing on much the same enigmatic, musing, ethereal cylinders as he did with The Fountain and much of Noah, expect his conceit this time around contains far less about the ineffable powers of love and way more orgy murders and crowdsurfing babies and Old Testament spit fire. Part home invasion thriller, part inky-black dark comedy and all blood-stained metaphor, Aronofsky’s wanton allegory is a surreal and visceral experience, one characterized by ravaging production elements, stormy performances and a kick-you-in-the-teeth ending.
On paper, the plot is relatively thin – a relationship is tested when unexpected guests arrive and a man expects excessive accommodation from his wife. Dig a little deeper and mother! looks like it’s about the creative process, the artist’s need for adoration and the ultimate price one’s family must pay for such. Is it a creator’s feral primal scream captured on celluloid? The reflection of raw emotion made film? Perhaps that’s part of it. A festering Aronofsky scorned by milquetoast criticism of his religious epic Noah lashing out at those who misunderstood what he meant to say.
But it doesn’t take much peeling to see beneath even that facade. A film that necessitates genuine reflection, mother! is so much larger than what we are seeing on screen and the subtext is so readily present, and presented in such flashing bright lights, that it might as well club you over the head with its obviousness at certain junctures. It’s as much about Mother Earth and the cyclical crumbling of civilizations and the almighty Creator as it is about this particular husband and wife. Throughout, there are explicit references to Christian creation mythology, one implosive scene pulled straight from Genesis sees two brothers take on the roles of Cain and Abel while another sees the literal ejection of the first humans from Eden, but the whole thing is one long deconstruction of the Christian Bible, plotted side-by-side against humanity’s violent stay on Earth.
The first half, which we can refer to as B.C. (Before Child, or as is heavily implied, Before Christ), is relatively light, especially when compared to what’s to come and in a round about way introduces us to its small stable of characters by allowing us to observe their actions. The film begins with an auspicious prologue. He (Javier Bardem) smiles, nestling a precious stone on a mantle. Shriveled with glowing embers inside, this artifact might seem a MacGuffin but ultimately is revealed to be the key to this whole venture. A decrepit house, in which we will remained trapped for the next two hours, becomes whole again and we cannot tell if time is moving forward or backwards. The visual trick is intentionally ouroboros-like in nature.
She (Jennifer Lawrence) rises and from her very first gesture, reaches out to Him. She is mother earth, even though that connection is never made tacit. He remains her first instinct. We learn that He is a struggling poet, living in seclusion to focus on his work, while she labors to fix up His once-conflagrated colonial. Their world is turned upside down when He, without seeking permission from her, invites in a single man, Ed Harris. Harris is clearly playing Adam, or some post-modern approximation of Adam. He’s bumbling. Insensitive. Dying from the moment we meet him. But he amuses Bardem’s master of the house with his stories and his scotch. Harris plays up the obliviousness of the character and the tragedy, from smoking indoors to overindulging on spirits, in equally measured doses.
Before you know it, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives. Pfeiffer’s nameless woman, presumably Eve, is fiery and cruel from her first appearance and she pairs perfectly with the material. Where mother! is discomfort comedy, credit Pfeiffer, whose careless imposition, pushy nature and smoldering glances make her an instant gem in the role. The manner in which she pokes and prods at mother, asking after her sexual appetites and willingness to bear children, is insensitive and cruel. She is woman as sinner; a gossiping, lustful, malevolent caricature of corruption. If mother is all grace, Eve is all guile.
As these characters are set in motion, the film reads like an Anton LaVey-written ‘Giving Tree’. A satanic chamber piece of mounting pressure and madness. One that pits arcane notions of the patriarch against the maternal instinct to preserve and protect. All mother really wants is to preserve. To nurture. To find sustainability in their lives and relationship. Self-centered schmuck that He is, He invites in a swirl of fanaticism so long as there is praise at his feet. Though it lays waste to their property and relationship, He remains satisfied. Beloved. While she, the lone sufferer, the bearer of children and maker of houses, doesn’t even earn a capitalization in her name. mother, as much as anything else, is about man’s war with woman and how history and religion has perpetuated such.
From a thematic storytelling standpoint, inspiration is drawn from far and wide. Obviously the Bible is the main text from which mother draws but there’s a number of notable name-checks remaining. The first act is Hitchcockian almost, a slow-broiling invasion horror of the oddest sort, done up with conceptual splashes pulled from Edgar Allen Poe “Tell Tale Heart” and the kind of misanthropic humor that Michael Haneke has employed to piss off his viewers.
From start to finish, the aesthetics are nothing less than sinister. The camerawork is incredibly voyeuristic, with more than half of mother!’s shots jammed in tight close up on Lawrence’s flustered facade. As she navigates the home that has become her cage, we remain trapped with her. Cinematography from Matthew Libatique is fittingly apocalyptic and gothically grim and as the camera zooms through the halls, a chaotic ballet of movements occur, disorienting intentionally. The refurbished colonial in which the entire film takes place is a literal hell house and the production design does a great job of establishing the space, of running us through its halls and familiarizing us with its floor plan, before peeling it apart and setting it aflame. The editing too is spastic meant to disorient, amplifies the tension and unease Aronofsky so badly desires in us. Add to that the fact that the film features virtually no score, allowing Laurence’s exasperated breathing to heighten the tone in any given moment.
More than likely destined to be a movie that’s more fun to dissect than it is to watch, mother!’s greatest problem is that it’s not a particularly fun watch. Moreso, the sheer visual tapestry of chaos begetting more chaos does get a bit repetitive and is certain to both bore and frustrate many viewers. While Aronofsky’s is certainly a film that would benefit from repeat feelings, it will nonetheless remain a hard sell for any casual movie fan. One thing however is guaranteed, audiences will walk out of mother! with a very strong opinion. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see this thing slapped with a F for a CinemaScore because, well, it’s just not for most people’s tastes. And that’s ok.
Though trailers have attempted to dress mother! up like a cultish horror piece, the film simply does defy description. The closest I can get is Ben Wheatley’s social satire High Rise but with more fire and brimstone and even that feels like a huge stretch. Even the chaotic whirlwind of violence, destruction and death that tempers mother’s arc makes Wheatley’s imagery look tame by comparison. Because if you think you’ve seen a dark depiction of horror in 2017, think again. mother! makes depressant and depressing It Comes at Night look like a pleasant stroll through the woods and cannibal kin flick Raw look like a joyful family reunion. There’s no getting around it, general audiences are going to hate this movie and rightfully so. And yet, I can’t stop thinking about it.
There are questions that crop up throughout that on the surface don’t appear to be answered: Who are these people? Why is the tale split into two seemingly distinct stories and what do they have to do with each other? What is the poem that He writes? What does the end mean? Well, for those who may confuse my theorizing for spoilers, I’ll preface this with a warning but, try and set things straight from my point of view. Respectively, Bardem is God, Lawrence is mother Earth, Harris is Adam, Pfeiffer is Eve and their child is Jesus. The stories are split into before and after the coming of Christ with that middle point marking his birth. The poem is The Bible or, at least, his commandments to the race of men. The end, dark as it is, is about the future. We are witnessing, through Aronofsky’s eyes, the apocalypse. Man forsaking their planet for their God. That act comes at the hands of humanity choosing God over earth, of an endless onslaught of war and lies and deception, at the cost of generations to come. And though humanity may be snuffed, He, God, will just start again, craving adoration.
I won’t deny that coming up with these theories was enjoyable in itself and that, in essence, is part of what makes mother! such an ultimately stunning feature. The incorrigible conclusion of mother!, middle finger though it will seem to many, is part of what makes it so engaging and so unique and there is no doubt in my mind that audiences will experience contempt, rage, disgust even and that is to its very core part of the purpose of the film. It makes you feel. Strongly. And while I’m comfortable in my takeaway, mother! also leaves itself open to other equally well-thought through arguments and interpretations and that’s also part of what I love about it. It makes you think. Hard.
Aronofsky here is equally auteur and provocateur. His expressionist take on the material and refusal to conform to easy answers, his insistence against palatably familiar narrative structure and his willingness to go to the most harrowing of places will likely inspire a good number to storm out of the theater and sing damnation upon Darren’s delectable creation. That being said, he doesn’t seem to care about the inevitable criticisms. This is his baby. And like a God hell bent on his way or the highway, he does exactly what he wants and bears no mind to those unwilling to see his vision or, better still, walk away trying to find their own meaning in it.
CONCLUSION: ‘mother!’ is not the movie you think it is but it remains one of 2017’s most provocative and engaging examples of auteur filmmaking. Captivating and challenging, brutal and bloodcurdling, steeped in madness, fraticide, infanticide and matricide, ‘mother!’ sees Darren Aronofsky direct with skillful fury and great social conscience, crafting an emotionally draining and visually exhaustive parable of religion, environmentalism and time itself. But in all honesty, it’s probably not for you.