Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is the disturbing R-rated Bible allegory no one asked for, but is sure to stimulate lively conversation. It’s like the uninvited guest to the party who gets drunk, spills on the carpet, then insults your religious beliefs while hitting on your wife before burning your house down. All of these moments occur in mother!. It’s nearly impossible to unpack the film without spoiling some of the narrative elements, so spoiler alert for this review. I’d recommend going into the film cold, ignorant of plot details and open to what Aronofsky and Co. have to offer.
Jennifer Lawrence is Mother, married to an older poet (Javier Bardem, listed as “HIM” in the credits). The two live in a large Victorian house in an isolated utopia. He attempts to write and create while She maintains and repairs what had been destroyed in a fire. When a Man (Ed Harris) and a Woman (Michelle Pfieffer) unexpectedly arrive at their door, Bardem’s husband invites them in, to the chagrin of the hesitant Lawrence. Dark visions and distressing pangs grow within Mother as the guests become increasingly unorthodox and hostile. The warmly gritty 16mm camera follows in Mother’s footsteps, keeping very close to her person in the same vein as Aronofsky’s Black Swan and The Wrestler. While the opening acts of mother! are strange and unnerving as a blank-stare Lawrence wanders through her dark and dilapidated house, the final third spirals into WTF territory in its overt symbolism and graphic violence. The uninvited guests increase in number, with Bardem’s husband welcoming all with open arms as they worship Him. When she finally gives birth to a child—an only begotten Son—the baby’s life is immediately in jeopardy due to the presence of the unwelcome visitors. Then things happen. Violent things.
An environmentalist treatise, a critique of religious ideology, and a retelling of the entire Biblical narrative, mother! will likely be most appreciated for audience members who genuinely enjoy when English literature profs ask for the deeper meaning behind the text. If War for the Planet of the Apes is 2017’s Exodus movie, mother! is a direct allegory of the Genesis narrative, particularly chapters 1-11. It’s Pilgrim’s Progress as if directed by Lars Von Trier or the Screwtape Letters from the perspective of Luis Bunuel; it’s The Tree of Life as a home invasion flick. Despite its more gruesome images, ranging from infant cannibalism to bleeding vaginal-like holes in the floorboards, I’d say it’s not really a horror film, unless you find noisy party guests sitting on your unbraced kitchen sink renovation project to be horrific.
The thing about allegories is that the characters are intentionally symbolic, avatars for Big Ideas or parallels to other characters in other familiar narratives. In this, mother! cannot be a true psychological thriller because its characters exist only to serve as stand-ins for the allegory’s concepts—these “characters” lack any psyche to thrill. Thus the audience’s ability to empathize is distracted by the lingering question of what each character and action represents, putting any personal connection at a distance. The film becomes a puzzle to solve rather than a parable to consider. The allegory might be more interesting if it weren’t so obvious what each character represents (and if Aronofsky himself hadn’t unpacked What It All Means in various interviews and video commentaries). A certain amount of enigma needs to be maintained for such an experiment in order to allow for multiple legitimate interpretations. The film could be read as the creative process itself and the death/resurrection of one’s inspirational muse; or it’s about the nature of troubled marriages and how it feels to go through a messy divorce; it’s a critique of fundamentalist religion as a whole, and Christianity in particular; or it’s a horror film for socially-proper introverts as the uninvited crowds rudely linger (my favorite alternative interpretation). Aronofsky unpacking the meaning in the press is, frankly, telling, not showing. Where his previous film, Noah, couched the environmental themes and critique of religion in its midrashic take on a biblical tale, mother! takes those exact same ideas and plants them into this disturbing metaphor, one which apparently needed to be explained to confused or angered audiences. The film is no more mysterious than Aronofsky’s The Fountain, or the films of Luis Bunuel, David Lynch, or Shane Carruth.
The theology of mother! ultimately steers away from its biblical roots towards something of Buddhism, a sort of cyclical death-and-rebirth. Are the religious critiques of mother! merited? One can be a Christian and be concerned about the natural world. Truly, all Christians should be environmentalists in that they care for and celebrate God’s good creation. Why a film like mother! exists might be due to the Christian church—and especially American Christianity—neglecting its vocation for creation care. In order to get people’s attention, Aronofsky employs the harsh and sadistic imagery of the Old Testament prophets and psalmists, whose laments and diatribes include graphic descriptions of sexual acts and infants being torn apart on rocks. The high-handed mother! falls in line with this prophetic tradition, though the effectiveness of its message is tenuous. mother!’s depiction of women is deeply troubling. Female characters are either helpless and doe-eyed, or sinister and sensual—it’s the Madonna/Whore motif enacted with sledgehammer-like subtlety. Still, whether audiences think it brilliant or abominable, mother! will force you to pay attention, at least until the credits roll.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5109784/