Ever since bursting onto the world stage with his surrealistic debut feature Pi in 1997, director Darren Aronofsky has been seen as a somewhat provocative filmmaker, but I don’t remember any of his movies drawing the controversy, and in some cases even passionate hatred, as his 2017 film mother! did. I had been hearing wildly divisive opinions on it in the years since it came out, but only recently got around to seeing it, and happily, I was able to avoid any spoilers or really any inkling of what the film was about until I sat down to watch it. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I like to go into movies and books knowing as little as possible about them so I can have a fresh perspective; with this movie, though, I think it will be up to the individual viewer whether they want to know what they’re in for going into the experience. Some people might find the story more impactful and less bewildering if they know ahead of time what the allegorical framework is, while some might like to discover that for themselves as they go along. However you choose to approach it, I definitely feel that this film, despite the bizarre animosity it received from certain factions among critics and audiences, is a multilayered masterpiece, and a movie that I’m still going to be thinking about years from now. Whether you agree with me or whether you despised it for whatever reason, there’s no denying that mother! got people talking and stirred up some intense emotions, and to me, that’s a sign of great art.
Keep in mind that to discuss this film in any meaningful way, I’m going to need to go into some things that happen in the story and talk about some of the symbolism on display, so if you’d like to come to mother! completely blind, then you might want to circle back to this review later on.
In my view, mother! can absolutely be appreciated simply on its surface level, as a very effectively nightmarish psychological horror film—somewhat in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby—that gets more and more insane, inscrutable, and grotesque as the tale unfolds. But tuning in to its overlapping allegories and character representations—which, to be honest, are not at all subtle or difficult to suss out, an obviousness that drew criticism from some corners—gives the movie much more resonance and a much larger scope, at least in my opinion.
At the beginning of the movie, we see a woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who is never named but is referred to in the credits and on the close captioning as Mother. She is married to a much older man, played by Javier Bardem, only referred to as Him. The couple apparently lives in isolated bliss in a lovely Victorian mansion that Mother has been single-handedly restoring after the house was destroyed by a fire at some time in the past.
Mother is portrayed as a giving soul, who loves her husband so much that she works tirelessly to return his house to its former glory. She also takes care of all the household chores without complaint, while Him, established as a poet who has been suffering from writer’s block, wanders the halls, sits in his office, and struggles to come up with a new artistic creation that will once again bring him the adulation he feels he deserves.
One important object established very early on is a vaguely heart-shaped crystal, which Him keeps on a stand in his office and appears to value very highly. He explains a bit later that the crystal was the only thing that survived the devastating blaze that destroyed everything in his past home.
There are a few other odd things happening as well, such as Mother’s occasional tendency to suddenly become ill and take some kind of medicine that consists of a yellow powder—that looks a bit like sulfur—dissolved in water. And a few times while she’s working on the house, she presses her hands against the plaster and we see what looks like a pulsing, living heart behind the walls of the mansion. Overall, though, Mother and Him seem to be living a quiet, idyllic existence.
Into this tranquil setting, disruption soon appears in the form of Ed Harris, known only as Man. At first, he claims to be a doctor, and he says that he came to the house because someone told him it was a bed and breakfast. Mother is wary of this stranger invading her sanctuary, mostly because he seems like a little bit of a clod: smoking when she expressly told him not to, leaving messes behind that she has to clean up. She’s not really happy about the whole situation, but Him and Man seem to hit it off right away, and Him invites Man to stay, so Mother just sucks it up and tries to make the best of it. How bad could it be, after all?
That night, Man evidently drinks too much, and Mother is awakened by the sound of him retching. Him is in the bathroom with Man helping him out, and when Mother goes to see if Man is okay, she briefly sees a terrible wound in Man’s side. The next morning, though, Man seems right as rain, but if Mother thought just having Man around was an imposition, then she has another thing coming, because Michelle Pfeiffer as Woman turns up on the doorstep, and she’s an even bigger pain in the ass than Man was: condescending, nosy, impertinent, and generally strutting around as though she owns the place.
Mother tries to put her foot down, but nobody really listens to her, and they all just do what they want. Him doesn’t want to make Man and Woman leave because he finds out that Man actually isn’t a doctor, but a superfan of Him’s books who is also dying, and wanted to meet Him before his death. Him is overjoyed to have someone around who is so enamored of his work, and his ego overrides anything that his wife might want.
However, Man and Woman take it too far at one point after going into Him’s office (which Mother strictly forbade them from doing) and breaking Him’s prized crystal. Him kicks them out and boards up his office, and Mother thinks she’s finally rid of the intrusive creeps, but Him bafflingly allows them to stay in the house over Mother’s unheeded objections.
Shortly afterward, Man and Woman’s two adult sons show up unexpectedly. One of the sons is pissed that Man’s will favors one son over the other, and a brawl ensues, in which one brother murders the other one, leaving a bloodstain on the floor that Mother can never remove. After this, Man and Woman’s whole extended family and circle of friends invade the house in the middle of the night for an impromptu wake, and Mother, still clad in her pajamas and robe, desperately tries to accommodate them, while all the guests basically treat her like garbage and act as though she’s being unreasonable when she asks them to please not trash the place and to stop poking around where they have no business going.
During the party, a pipe breaks in the kitchen and floods the place out, at which point everyone finally leaves. Even though the guests left a giant mess for her to clean up, Mother is relieved to finally have her peaceful existence back. She and Him have sex after what is implied to be a long time, and the next morning she immediately knows that she’s pregnant. Inspired by the pregnancy and all of the love and appreciation of the people who had overrun their house, he writes his magnum opus, a book which is published to the fawning accolades of fans worldwide.
Said fans begin showing up at the house en masse when Mother is almost ready to give birth, and what begins as an unsettling bit of hero worship eventually escalates into sheer insanity, as more and more people descend on the house, destroying everything within it, killing one another over differing opinions about Him’s book, beating and abusing Mother, and eventually killing and eating Mother’s newborn baby, all while Him sort of sits back and allows it to happen. Mother subsequently has had enough and burns the whole thing down, at which point Him pulls the heart from her charred body, which becomes a crystal, which causes the whole cycle to begin again with a new Mother.
As if my breakdown of the plot didn’t make it clear, the entirety of mother! is something of an environmental apocalypse story couched in the framework of Biblical allegory (which is why I think mother! would make an excellent double feature with Aronofsky’s other Biblical freakout, 2014’s Noah). Him is the creator God, Mother is Mother Earth or Mother Nature, and the house is a microcosm of the planet and an extension of Mother.
At the beginning of the story, a new cycle of creation has begun, and Him and Mother are in the Garden of Eden. But then Man and Woman (Adam and Eve; the wound in Man’s side should have made this obvious, as it’s a reference to Adam’s rib being used to create Eve) show up, and even though they’re disrespectful of Mother’s wishes, Him keeps them around because he needs their adulation. After they break Him’s crystal (symbolic of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge), Him banishes them from his office, but not from the house at large.
Then the sons arrive (representing Cain and Abel), and one kills the other, leaving a bloodstain on the floor (which represents original sin, or the knowledge of violence). The pipe bursting at the party was the Flood writ small, which got all the people out of the house for a time, but then they came back with a vengeance, trashing the place, slaughtering one another, and acting like they had every right to do so, while Him (God) continued to forgive them, because he is unable to create without the worship of humanity.
Then Mother gives birth to her baby (Jesus), who is murdered and devoured by Him’s ardent followers, after which Mother finally erupts with righteous anger and wipes the whole slate clean. Him creates the world anew, but all the people from the last iteration are dead, and it’s implied that this tragic cycle will endlessly repeat itself, because God cannot help but create flawed beings to adore him.
So not only is mother! an encapsulation of the Old and New Testaments, it’s also a cynical examination of how humans have short-sightedly fucked up the environment they live in by treating the planet as nothing but a resource to be exploited. It’s also an interesting condemnation of the creator God figure, who is portrayed as a selfish and emotionally distant husband who seems to never listen to his wife and doesn’t care all that much about her concerns, only giving a shit about his own creations and the deification they give him.
On a smaller scale, the film also alludes to any artist or creator who takes the very heart and soul from their muse and uses it to create art, but at the expense of the muse, who has given everything but receives nothing in return. I’ve also seen a few people point out that the first two-thirds of the movie is a fairly good reenactment of what it’s like being in a relationship with a narcissist, which absolutely tracks with the whole intention of the story.
This was an intense, messed-up movie for sure, and it obviously will not be for everyone, especially considering that a newborn infant gets torn apart and eaten toward the end, which may turn some viewers off. It’s bold, audacious, and challenging, and although in my opinion the symbolism is pretty readily apparent, I think viewers who aren’t watching it with the same Judeo-Christian context can still appreciate it for the wild ride that it is. Honestly, the anxiety I felt watching it wasn’t so much from all the Biblical stuff, but just from thinking about what a nightmare it would be to have all of these random assholes wandering into your house, acting like they could do what they wanted even though you kept telling them to knock it off, and then having your supposedly loving partner just let it happen while essentially ignoring you. The bigger issue of the random assholes being the whole of humanity and your house being the Earth was just the icing on the macrocosmic cake.
Love it or hate it, you have to admit that mother! almost dares you to have an opinion about it one way or another, and I will always respect a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, who deliberately tries to shake moviegoers’ complacency by showing them something that is almost guaranteed to push some buttons. I loved this movie, and while I can understand people who didn’t care for it because they thought it was pretentious or offensive whatever, for me it was a psychologically exhausting experience that I ultimately found really rewarding.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.