mother! is a scathing critique of patriarchal gender roles and a deformed, Cronenberg-esque literalization of the horrors of celebrity, all wrapped in a theological metaphor that paints God as a cosmic asshole we’d all be better off without. No wonder people are pissed about it.
The film follows Jennifer Lawrence and Jarvier Bardem as a married couple (merely titled “mother” and “Him” in the credits) living in a vast house Lawrence is re-building while Bardem struggles to come up with the right words for a new manuscript. Following in the footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby, the film anchors our perspective to intense close-ups on Lawrence as she watches her husband come and go with a coldness masked in occasional kisses and loving words. Trapped in these dizzying close ups it immediately elicits a sense of claustrophobia within the creaking abode, and casts a wary eye toward “Him”. The whole shebang cascades into a carnival of horrors when a stranger arrives at their door, Lawrence gets pregnant, and Bardem publishes his “word.”
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
From there it becomes a batshit example of “Hell is other people” with a variety of meanings ripe for the plucking. The intentional allegory already confirmed by director Darren Aronofsky while he and Lawrence have been on the press circuit is a re-telling of Christian theology: Mother nature and God (mother & Him) are visited by Ed Harris and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Adam & Eve), who throw the Garden of Eden into chaos when their sons arrive and commit fratricide (Cain & Abel). When Bardem finally releases “The Word”, a crowd of feverish followers emerge to bask in his glory, render the house into a series of broken religious relics, and finally murder and consume the couple’s new-born child (you know, Jesus). In a final nod to climate change, Lawrence burns the whole house down in a fit of rage using an oil tank in the basement, sending their Eden up in flames.*
There’s also a range of social commentary made flesh, as the film levies one of the most damning critiques of patriarchy in recent film memory. Lawrence suffers a litany of sexist abuse, from micro-aggressions to outright assault; she’s expected to clean up after and cook for the garrulous guests, called a cunt after refusing a reveller’s advances, and is finally stripped, beaten, and denigrated after she has the temerity to fight back against cult members that surround her husband. Given the abuse women have received online and offline, and the hacking of Jennifer Lawrence’s own phone three years ago, the film offers us a mirror to reflect the sexist world we already live in.
Aronofsky has a propensity toward these metaphors and critiques, refusing to treat cinema like blockbuster soma, instead using it as a hatchet to hack at our cores. From his first film Pi, in which a man drills into his skull to find the hidden word of God, all the way to the bodily destruction we see in Black Swan and The Wrestler, his work is simultaneously about the corporeal form and the existential. What he’s added here is a take-no-prisoners analysis of fame and creation that strikes close to home in a variety of ways. Not since South Park‘s “Britney’s New Look” episode have we seen such deconstruction of, and giant middle finger to, fan culture’s ravenous appetite, here made literal as the mob consumes a new-born child as just another memento, a souvenir of their idol.
The film ends with Bardem taking the crispy, but still chatty corpse of Lawrence and removing her heart (her “love” he says) to re-start a whole new cycle of creation. The ashen ruins of the house revert back to perfection as the cycle begins again when a young “mother” wakes and calls out for Him. One project down, another to go.
As someone also making films, this scene reads as a cutting critique of the creators in our midst, all of us who put everything we have into something and leave little for those closest to us, despite their being a constant source of love and support. Since Aronofsky and his ex-wife Rachel Weisz divorced soon after he completed Black Swan, it’s hard not to wonder how much this film’s Christian metaphors intermingle with his personal experiences of how filmmaking can burn those around you.
Given these layers of meaning it can become a maddening choose your own adventure story that may not work for some. CinemaScore, which takes audience surveys on opening weekend, gave mother! an “F”, the National Review called it torture porn (an old chestnut that’s so lazy I guess it’ll never die), while the A.V. Club called it “brilliantly deranged.”
Regardless what you think of the film, we’re better off with filmmakers like Aronofsky, who are going to make you feel SOMETHING when you see their work even if sometimes it turns out to be a self-indulgent dud or a beautiful mess marring otherwise great filmographies. These filmmakers know that cinema still has bite, that it’s still is rooted in our dreams and nightmares.
I went in expecting another nightmare from Aronofsky and he paid off with a film that had 2 audience members walk out and the rest saying aloud, “What the hell was it about?” With mother! Aronofsky rudely reminds people that despite his last film Noah being a PG-13 biblical epic made for 125 million dollars, he’s still the same guy who made Pi and The Fountain, low-budget mind benders that attracted a few, but horrified or puzzled the rest. It’s good to have him back.
*And that’s the condensed version. There are tons of other little nods.