Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Divisive doesn’t even begin to cover the reception this film has received. mother! has inspired acclaim, hatred, adoration, revulsion, amusement, confusion, horror, curiosity, contemplation, frustration, and so much more from its audience. Some have applauded in ecstasy; others have walked out in disgust. Some hail it as an epic masterpiece; others disparage it as an epic catastrophe; and others still have absolutely no idea what to make of it whatsoever. It is a difficult film to watch, that much is certain. mother! is downright alienating, oftentimes horrifying, and relentlessly inscrutable. But it is also fascinating and unique. There’s never been a film quite like this and it’s one that compellingly draws your eyes and holds your attention the way that either a magnificent painting or a calamitous car crash would. I’ll try to go into more detail about the story and what I took from it, but personally I think the viewer should go in knowing nothing and would encourage anyone who has not seen it to stop reading now and go watch it.
Seriously, nothing I can say can prepare you for what happens. Whether you end up liking it or not, the only way to understand what kind of film mother! is is to actually watch it. If, however, you’re interested in knowing more about the story and what I think it means (if it means anything at all) then read on.
The movie is set in an old house in the middle of nowhere that was previously destroyed in a fire but has since been rebuilt and its two inhabitant are Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem). He is a famous writer trying to start a new novel but is unable to find the words and she is his young wife who occupies her time with remodelling her husband’s house. The two live a quiet life completely cut off from civilisation, perfectly content with no other company but their own. Later they are visited by Man (Ed Harris), a lost traveller who asks for a place to stay for the night. The next day they are joined by his wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mother isn’t keen on the idea of having visitors over, fearing the damage they might do to the house or the disruption they’ll cause to their quiet, solitary life, but her husband is positively delighted to have them stay.
It would appear to be a simple enough set-up, but there’s something else going on. Within the first 10-15 minutes, it became clear to me that this movie does not take place anywhere that we would recognise as the real world. The way that we never see any trace of an outside civilisation and the way that time doesn’t seem to have any structure or meaning here suggests this. The house itself appears to have more going on beneath the surface as we see when Mother puts her hand on the wall and sees what looks and sounds like a dying heart. After the visitors start arriving, things only proceed to get more insane and surreal and Aronofsky seems adamant that the audience’s hand must not be held through any of it. Events escalate as the movie moves closer to its increasingly chaotic climax and through it all the movie remains steadfastly metaphorical. It is clear that this is a movie that has no intentions of playing by the rules and Aronofsky never makes any apologies for it.
Our protagonist is Lawrence’s Mother and she is just as confused by what’s going on as we are. Aronofsky makes a strong effort to convey a POV affect by fixing the camera tightly on Lawrence for prolonged takes and shooting other scenes from over her shoulder, drawing a clear focus to her perspective and reactions. Her character has no apparent ambitions or desires apart from living with her husband, being completely devoted to him, and becoming the titular mother that she is destined to become. Her husband is less content with their life, suffering from writer’s block and revelling in the company of others (especially when he discovers them to be admirers of his work). He continues to neglect his wife’s wants and feelings as he indulges himself in the encouragement and admiration of others and she’s left with the task of cleaning up after them. The film takes on a Rosemary’s Baby vibe as Mother starts to feel like everyone is out to get her, destroying everything she holds dear and attacking her while her husband remains oblivious to her anxieties.
Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school will start picking up on the film’s biblical connotations before long. Lawrence serves as a stand-in for nature (or Mother Earth if you want to assign a character to her) while Bardem’s Him is God. Man and Woman then would clearly be Adam and Eve and later on the film’s introduces two characters to represent Cain and Abel. This, in turn, would apparently make Mother’s eventual child a stand-in for Christ. So what is the film trying to say with that? Well, given the duress and trauma inflicted on Mother throughout the film, both physical and emotional, perhaps this film is an allegory for the way that man has mistreated nature. If that’s the angle Aronofsky is going for then it’s clear where his sympathies lie. He casts God as a vain figure craving recognition, someone who cares more about being worshipped and adulated than in caring for his wife and child. Humanity meanwhile is portrayed as being negligent, fanatical, and destructive, caring nothing for the damage they cause in their wake.
Or maybe the movie means something else entirely. It isn’t clear what kind of movie mother! is and it was made that way intentionally. This is a movie that is meant to be dissected and written about in length. Its style is a striking one that demands the viewer’s attention and its story is an ambiguous one that invites a never-ending series of questions without answers and several contradictory interpretations. It has been advertised as a horror film, and it is a horror in the sense that it creates an atmosphere of dread, carnage, and paranoia, and thrives off the terror of that which cannot be understood. But is it any good? I don’t know. I guess it depends on what you take away from it. I found mother! to be an often enthralling, often horrifying film to sit through. Since then I’ve found it to be a fascinating film to think about, read about, and talk about. I will have to re-watch it sometime, so maybe there’s something to be said for a movie that demands to be seen again despite (or maybe because) of all the unpleasantness it depicts. mother! is a well-crafted, provocative, and confounding film and, if it’s inspiring such a strong reaction from the audience, both positive and negative, it must be doing something right.