Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Genre: Psychological horror
Dear reader, I’m not telling you a BLASTED thing…
Violence/Scary Images: Realistic, explosive violence that escalates to warlike chaos and horror gore (sieges, executions). Though it doesn’t approach the gratuitously graphic nature of torture porn, the violence is very effectively horrifying and nightmarish.
Language/Crude Humor: Infrequent use of angry curses, including “f***,” “s***,” “w***e,” “b****,” “d***,” and “c***.”
Sexual Content: Translucent garments; two sex scenes (heavy breathing, but no graphic nudity). Fleeting depictions of a topless woman are shown in a horrifying and non-sexual context.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Adults make a toast with wine. A mysterious medicinal substance (implied to be like laudanum) is used repeatedly, in a sinister context.
Spiritual Content: The film is packed to overflowing with biblical allegories. See if you can spot them all.
Other Negative Themes: This is, quite frankly, one of the most gut-churningly unsettling film experiences I’ve ever had at the cinema. Certainly not for the faint of heart. There are also some theologically unsound suggestions to be found here.
Positive Content: The film is highly metaphorical; it’s not really meant to be taken literally. But amidst its horrific situations is a mother fighting selflessly for her child. The characters read mostly as representations of ideas – except for the protagonist, who’s extremely smart and capable, with unshakable maternal instincts; she tries her best to maintain her family. But there’s a sea of negative representations around her.
In many ways, the work of a film reviewer is quite easy. We observe the creative works of others in a somewhat passive fashion, offering whatever insights we can with regard to their merits and demerits. Considering the sheer volume of work that the typical film reviewer goes through in an average month alone, it is usually impractical for one in this profession to become attached to any particular work for too long (or to allow any work to become attached to them for too long). This could disrupt the flow of the job, possibly distorting one’s view of other similar work taking place in the queue and injuring the purity of their criticism.
In his work An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis addresses the dichotomy between the “Many” and the “Few” with regard to how audiences interact with the arts. Lewis points out that the Many “use” art, but the Few “receive” it. Meaning, most people do not really appreciate any work of art for what it is in and of itself as a relic of craftsmanship, but rather only value it in what it can do for them or service their own pre-existing desires or agendas.
The Few are those who value artistic experience as being an intrinsically rewarding ordeal with no need for utilitarian justification. Simply coming upon a new narrative work is, for the Few, “an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.” For the Many, by contrast, a new narrative is little more than an opportunity to feel comfortable and affirmed within themselves right where they are. Once the work serves its purpose of validating whatever position the Many happens to hold at the time, it becomes “dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper.”
Naturally, those who dedicate themselves to the practice of film, art, and literary criticism and analysis are of the Few, as they value the arts enough to make them a central part of their thought life. This requires them to open themselves up to the possibility of having the work reach them in ways that nothing else can. For those of us who are dedicated in such a way to the narrative arts, we face the strange conundrum of not allowing ourselves to become too attached to any one work lest we become distracted from other works, and yet wishing and hoping with everything that we are to be entranced by every work we come across in just that way.
So what is one to do when encountering a work that manages to worm its way into the psyche and refuses to leave? What can one do when the last film seen threatens to have altered one’s very perception of the world occupied and those who populate it? What is to be done when a particular movie is so filled to overflowing with metaphorical information and yet so mysterious and compelling, that dwelling upon it is not only inviting but seemingly necessary?
Darren Aronofsky is one filmmaker who seeks with every outing to do just that. While he is not always successful in his ambitions, it is clear that he is not an auteur friendly to the Many who only wish to “use” art rather than truly receive it. His films are not for everyone and are repeatedly distinguished as being dark, divisive, and deeply personal. Of course, I’ve long held that there really is no such thing as a work of art that is actually “for everyone,” as our weaknesses vary so widely in scope and degree that even the most innocuous of works will still be problematic for at least some viewers. Nevertheless, Aronofsky’s latest release of mother! is no exception to this rule he has set for himself. If anything, it is the pinnacle of everything that makes Aronofsky who he is as an artist.
Simultaneously being incredibly restrained and cosmically expansive in its scope, mother! somehow manages to explore the self-destructive nature of fame-obsessed celebrities, the exasperation of their committed and put-upon significant others, the maniacal cult-like behavior of their “dedicated” fanbase, and the entire history of the world as detailed within the Holy Bible in one sitting. With characters explicitly allegorical in their nature and presentation and yet given specific development arcs, we are faced with a story that is both indiscernibly abstract and yet remarkably concrete and immediate. It is no wonder why this is arguably the most controversial film released this year. It’s quite safe to say that Aronofsky designed it to be received and reacted to like this.
Deceptively simple in its setup, mother! introduces us in the most unusual of ways to an unambiguously virginal bride who seems to have been conjured wholesale out of the ashes of oblivion by her creator/spouse (don’t be on me now, dear reader; we’re just getting started). Played with remarkable dexterity by Jennifer Lawrence, the character known only as “mother” operates as a woefully tragic figure, being the youthful wife of a much older successful poet simply named “Him” (Javier Bardem) who is haunted by a severe case of writer’s block. Considering that none of the main characters are given proper names, it is quite clear that they are meant to be archetypes for something or someone. What that something or someone (perhaps both?) could be is shrouded in mystery throughout much of the film.
The couple lives an idyllic life in an isolated octagonal country cottage out in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. There are no roads leading to the house and it’s surrounded by nothing but grass and trees. Him remarks at one point that he is happy about the fact that cell phone signals don’t even reach out to the cottage. They seem to be a couple that values their privacy, but when they are visited by a strange man (Ed Harris) who claims to have been told that their house is a bed and breakfast, Him is eager to keep the man around as long as possible, whereas mother is hesitant to give shelter to a complete stranger. This tendency of Him to open the house that mother slaves over building and perfecting to personae no gratae slowly escalates into a mercilessly persistent terror filled with the worst houseguests imaginable.
The character of mother symbolically embodies a number of mythological figures over the course of the plot such as Hestia, Aphrodite, the Gnostic Sophia, and even the Virgin Mary at one key point, but by the admission of Aronofsky, her primary identification is with Gaia, or Mother Earth. She has painstakingly rebuilt this serene home from the ground up for the sole purpose of providing herself and her husband a place of peace and tranquility where Him’s creativity can properly flourish and where she can be alone in his loving embrace. Lawrence very effectively portrays the dread and helplessness of a literal homemaker seeing all that she has put herself into being utterly ruined by careless, selfish, and ravenous intruders who have no respect for her or what she has made.
It is clear that Aronofsky is primarily concerned with ensuring that we sympathize with mother and her dismay, rage, and sorrow. Throughout the film, we are constantly seeing everything over her shoulder with an impenetrable fog of confusion lingering about our field of vision.This is meant first and foremost to be analogous to Aronofsky’s idea of Mother Nature’s helplessness as the human race destroys and devours everything that she provides and develops with reckless abandon and little regard for her well-being. The tragedy of this devastation is increased when we take into account the symbiotic relationship that mother has with the home itself. Every time she touches a wall, a beating heart that seems to rest within the home is visually indicated. It is worthwhile to note that Aronofsky is a devout environmentalist whose leaning can also be seen quite explicitly in his last film release of Noah, about which he once stated that he fears a disaster similar to the Great Flood will be brought upon us should we not repent of our exploitation of nature.
The unspeakable horror of unbridled human instinct is what this nightmare looks dead in the eye without any sign of relief. The camera rarely even pulls out for an establishing shot so that we viewers may be allowed to breathe from all the chaos swirling around. As Him continues to allow more and more unwanted guests into the home, the entire picture gradually devolves into some hellish soiree straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Death, malice, destruction, mob violence, hatred, selfishness, tribalistic warmongering, and ritualistic exploitation rings on and on and on from a crowd of both literal and figurative homewreckers who simply will not leave under any circumstance, feeling as though they are entitled to the environment. As a clinical introvert, this was a personally visceral nightmare that left me nearly suffocated.
And what of the poet? What is his angle in all of this? Why does he allow these toxic murderers to carry on in his home without restraint, correction, or a word of consternation? It is shown that Him urges the first man to stick around because he claimed to be a great admirer of Him’s earlier work and wished to see Him personally before passing away. Him asserts to mother that the reason why he continues to keep the first man and all the crowds of destroyers who follow him around is that he feels his creative energy being rekindled by simply having these admirers in the home. No matter how much they continue to steal, kill, and destroy.
Him regards their presence to be essential to his joy and fulfillment. Early on after a crowd of guests were forced out after dealing significant damage to the home, Him expresses to his wife that he was only trying to “bring some life into the house.” This emotionally wounds mother who is saddened that her presence and love is not enough for Him. In fact, Him consistently displays his lack of appreciation for everything that mother does for her husband and for their home while reveling in the praise and worship that the crowds of thoughtless hoodlums provide.
The symbolic parallel here requires some countering. It seems at least at first that Aronofsky is equating Bardem’s character with God the Creator. On multiple occasions, Him is referred to as a creator, and the massive throngs come primarily by their own admittance to praise and bask in his presence while making themselves far too much at home. This seems largely to suggest that in Aronofsky’s vision, God is little more than a self-centered artist who negligently thrives on being worshipped and praised by the very people who make a habit of bringing ruin and death to his creation of nature. His mercy is everlasting even to the point of practicing nothing in the way of opposition for all the crimes being done to his home. Of course, this is an incomplete picture of the God of Scripture, who practices both justice and mercy in the same stroke. Upon rethinking the matter, I find that the symbolic identification of the characters are deliberately made to be incomplete so that no one mode of allegorical assessment can capture the entirety of the narrative.
Aside from the theological angle, mother! can also be considered a cautionary tale to artists who may let the allure of fame and adoration cause them to neglect the very people and things in their life that brought them to that point of success. It is both terrifying and tragic to see to what lengths Him is willing to go in order to keep his public near him and in his home regardless of what atrocities they commit. In fact, the admirers he draws to himself can be seen like the aforementioned “Many” who seek to use Him’s work for their own gratification without ever truly receiving it or respecting it for what it is. The third act entails two inhumane deeds that honestly amount to some of the most disquieting depictions of human depravity that I have personally ever witnessed at the cinema – scenes that have gotten similar films banned from entire countries. I dare not spoil them here. Suffice it to say, dear reader, that they will most likely demand everything of your understanding and constitution to bear and comprehend.
I find that this bifurcated approach is what is needed in order to fully grasp what mother! is both exploring and suggesting to its viewers. Early on, Ed Harris’ character’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives at the home and operates as both an Eve figure and a Serpent figure as observed by Alissa Wilkinson in her review for Vox.com. She can also be observed as an eager critic hungry for more material to criticize from the artist. At another early point, we see a violent conflict between two brothers which embodies both Cain and Abel as well as Jacob and Esau as Evan Cogswell noted in his review. This is a film so rich in depth and multi-dimensionality that no one hard fast method of cross-examination will suffice in aiding us to comprehend it. There are several angles to it, and each angle has multiple angles.
If there were one word that I think could be used to accurately describe mother! in a negative light, it would be “misanthropic.” If the barbaric hordes of Him’s fans are to be seen as archetypal of the human race as a whole, it would seem to suggest that the only good that we could do for Mother Nature is simply to go extinct. In an early scene, some guests are depicted painting up the walls of the house in an effort to “offer their appreciation.” Mother tells them that she doesn’t need their help or appreciation, and they subsequently act as though her home is actually theirs now.
At a later scene, while mobs of rioters are going out of their way to tear apart the walls of the house, mother frantically demands to know why they are doing this.The response is “to prove that we were here.”The film seems to suggest that whatever accomplishments humankind has made is done solely for the selfish motivation of conquest. To leave our mark upon the earth regardless of how much of a natural wound that mark might leave is what we take to be our entire raison d’etre. What makes this so sad is that for the secular humanist, that may very well be the case. Without some physical legacy that exists after we are dead and gone, what purpose do we have in this brief horror show of civilization and social advancement?
Never before have I been so beside myself with a movie. In the same breath, I was enthralled and deeply horrified. I was brought to new levels of spiritual and theological thought and reminded of my inescapably banal and carnal essence as a human being. I was reminded more vividly than ever of how the human race is both the universe’s greatest glory and greatest disgrace. Perhaps it is only because we were originally fearfully and wonderfully made (an oddly telling combination of descriptors in itself) to be the universe’s greatest glory that we are capable of being such a shockingly horrific disgrace. Only a mercy and love of infinite wisdom could ever will something like us into existence with full realization of what we would do and become.
For whatever theological failures mother! can be said to have, the one great achievement it does make is in showing what horrors will befall us if mercy and justice are ever divorced from each other in the Godhead. If God were to simply allow our sins to carry on without care or concern, only hell awaits. If justice is meted out without any modicum of mercy, only oblivion awaits. No matter how you slice it, if any lack were to be found in either department, nothing worth preserving or even acknowledging would come out of it. This is a film that manages with gracefully calculated abandon to show us the horrors of both hell and oblivion in the same motion while leaving me thankful that there is a way out. As much as I disagree with his position and ideas, thank God – seriously – for Darren Aronofsky.
+ Powerful performances + Skillfully unorthodox camera work + Deeply engaging plot and progression + Terrifying on a fundamental level
- Terrifying on a fundamental level - Some theological suggestions are deeply problematic
The Bottom Line
I love this film, and I hate the experience it put me through. Glad I saw it, but it will be a long while before I work up the nerve to see it again.