Darren Aronofsky is a known provocateur. He’s also a known narcissist, so for a film like mother! to obviously be so in love with itself and its themes isn’t a surprise, but its tenacity and sheer ambition are quite moving. It's a major studio release whose lunacy and disinterest in mainstream sensitivities has more in common with Freddy Got Fingered than it does Black Swan. Basically, while Aronofsky is among the likes of filmmakers such as Lars Von Trier, he is able to back it up with uncompromising vision and atmosphere. These are areas mother! succeeds in, which isn’t to say it’s a masterpiece as it has its fair share of missteps – but nonetheless, it’s a milestone in terms of major studio output.
It should be noted, that given the ever-shifting tone and thematic elements of mother!, a concrete singular reading of the film isn’t only inane, but impossible as well. To label it simply as “___” while disregarding other readings is as ignorant as the audiences walking out and/or contributing to its “F” Cinemascore (an accolade held by fellow greats: Solaris, Wolf Creek, Bug, and Killing Them Softly). If anything, mother! is a film that audiences enter with a preconceived notion of what to expect – a horror film – or preferred metaphors derived from the film’s marketing, i.e., marital roles, gas lighting, spousal abuse, etc., a la Rosemary’s Baby. While the aforementioned is prevalent, it’s only the surface in a melting pot of subjects.
What can be said is that mother! is: a horror film, a tale of spousal abuse and neglect, religious and ecologic allegory, and an exercise in heightened sound and image. On its surface, mother! is the story of Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) and their quiet life that is quickly upended by visiting strangers. Mother is a devout wife who spends her days renovating the crumbling mansion of Him, who is a lauded poet with writer’s block. The initial strangers in question are Man (Ed Harris), a doctor who is revealed to be a dying fan of Him, and his wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose dissatisfaction with her marital and domestic role is routinely numbed by a series of spiked lemonades.
What first appears as a play on Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s relationship with Minnie and Roman Castavet quickly turns as their two children, Younger Brother and Older Son (real life brothers, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson), show up and incite a fatal argument. This is the first of many religious parallels in mother! as the brotherly altercation can be viewed as the story of Cain and Abel, which casts Harris and Pfeiffer as Adam and Eve. If this is to be true, Bardem is then God, the poet seducing humanity with his Word(s) which are bound and sold in black leather like that of the average Bible. What role does Lawrence then have in this allegory? Her role is expansive and constantly shifting with the narrative of the film, the spectrum being that of housewife to Mary to Mother Earth, sometimes all at once.
Now, that’s enough content for a major feature but this is only the first act of mother!, which happens to be its major failing as it is the very definition of biting off more than one can chew. What could have been a focused examination of the relationship between God and Mary is instead a send-up of Christianity and civilization that is as chaotic and uneven as it is expansive. With the second act positing the Mother Nature allegory, as Lawrence is the perennial guest to a never-ending series of funeral guests. The anxiety is palpable as Lawrence rushes around attempting to satisfy everyone’s needs while maintaining the sanctity and structural integrity of her home: our Earth. It’s a powerful statement that extends to women in general as the notion that nothing is ever enough is revealed through blind destruction, forceful interactions, and an insatiable need for more.
The house, which is brilliantly shot by Aronofsky’s regular DP, Matthew Libatique, is as much of a character as the performers as it eventually hosts humanity’s downfall and extinction. The photography evokes the claustrophobia and terror of Rosemary’s Babywith its insistence on action taking place in thresholds (doorways specifically) and The Shining with the layout of the house remaining indiscernible throughout. Coupled with the seamless editing of Andrew Weisblum, mother! at times feels like the frenetic byproduct of Birdman. The third act is a synthesis of collapsing narrative and technical prowess that feels like Children of Men’s Bexhill sequence by way of Godard’s Weekend. It’s such a rush of imagery, content, and progression that a tangible grasp isn’t possible until it slows down with the birth of, well, Jesus Christ.
To backtrack a bit, Mother is relieved by the publishing of Him’s newest book – the New Testament perhaps – believing that the lifting of his writer’s block and her pregnancy will lead to them reestablishing their own Eden. However, the book opens the door to an entirely new sect of fans, followers, and strangers that eventually fill the house to occupancy and then some. It’s a series of shattered windows, crumbling walls, rioting, extreme idolatry, and violence. Mother crawls and claws her way around in the attempt of finding shelter to give birth (subtlety really isn’t the film’s strong suit).
As previously stated, the birth and following moments serve as momentary relief from the insanity of the house that is immediately flipped and heightened to such terrifying extremes that it’s insane to think this was just released in 2,368 theaters. It’s a film so immensely critical of organized religion and humanity – especially men – in general that it’s hard to imagine this finding an audience of any kind outside of niche circles.
The score and sound design by Jóhann Jóhannsson rivals that of Daft Punk’s work on Enter the Void as the quiet soul of the film. The ring of glass is that of a silent scream and the floorboards creak like muffled exhales. Mother! is brought to life through the sound design, every inch of the house being a living and breathing organism that will selflessly and endlessly offer itself up until it is nothing more.
Ultimately, mother! is a divisive work by an auteur at the height of his artistry, but at the same time, at odds with itself. One cannot ignore the marital history of Aronofsky and the links between himself and Bardem, with both claiming Lawrence as their inspiration following a failed marriage. This leads the metanarrative and impact of mother! to sharing similarities with another hard-hitting and tense 2017 film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Meaning that, both films are made by white filmmakers in which the main plight is that of a disenfranchised group they do not understand. Which is to say, the emotionally charged imagery: a gang beating of a woman or a white cop holding a gun to a black youth’s head, is powerful and brave to commit to a larger audience – yet they remain images that the director cannot truly understand. In cases such as this, it is important to remember, mother! is made by a crew of men and Detroit was produced without creative advising from P.O.C. This is what makes the heart and soul of the film’s hard to believe.
In this sense, mother! once again shifts in form: Is it about the cult-like status of the auteur? An indictment of celebrity culture? Is it a religious parable? A cinematic confession? A literal deconstruction of the many horrors of religion? An examination of internalized misogyny and rape culture? Is there a difference between God and Devil? Can a being of divine Good be just as capable of absolute Evil? There is much to be said, but not enough to grasp. Perhaps that is the mantra of mother! though, a whirlwind – or rather slapping to the face – of emotions that prefers to further constrict than alleviate its audience. Regardless, mother! is a powerfully acted and thought provoking work that isn't afraid to stick to its vision.