Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" is an Allegory for the Obvious
A month before the release of Darren Aronofksy’s new film mother! (2017) he was quoted as saying: “The best thing about this film will be the surprise of it… It’s an intense journey and it’s definitely the biggest roller coaster in the park. Only get on it if you really want to do the loop-the-loop.” Seeing as the point of roller coasters is that they aren’t a mystery – you can see exactly what you’re in for before you get on – this struck me as a strange thing to say for such a hush-hush movie. Even the movie's trailer promised the audience nothing, save for the menace of an unknown horror. But mother! is neither a horror film, though it contains horrifying moments, nor a mystery. Instead, it’s arguably one of Aronofsky’s most straightforward films. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun – it’s fun. Whether it’s much more than that, however, depends on the type of viewer.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention right now that this will contain copious plot spoilers… though I'd argue the movie would be just as enjoyable even knowing what you're in for.)
Look at it this way: mother! is about a middle aged man (Javier Bardem) and a younger woman (Jennifer Lawrence) living in the countryside in a grand and beautiful turn-of-the-century house. The man is a poet; he spends his days trying to write his next great work. The woman has no job other than being deeply devoted to him – after the man lost everything in a fire, she swept in and dedicated her life to rebuilding his house for him. She spends her days tiptoeing barefoot around him, making sure he feels comfortable and supported, all the while continuing to rebuild every last bit of his house room by room.
After strangers show up to the house and refuse to leave, she becomes defensive. She’s building a world for the two of them, and yet he keeps inviting more and more people in; people who spend all of their time adoring and praising Him as an artist. When she asks him why she’s not enough for Him, he dismisses her good-naturedly, telling her to see things from his perspective and enjoy these unwanted guests instead of listening to her gut feelings. All of the work she’s done on this house then proceeds to be ripped to shreds as her husband courts more and more chaos into the home.
Does this seem like an obvious metaphor for relationship power dynamics? That’s because it is. For a movie that was marketed so vaguely, mother! came across as a very bluntly obvious movie to me. As the film progresses into its Kafkaesque second half, all of these themes are simply heightened. What starts as a stranger who won’t leave, turns into a whole family who won’t leave, which turns into a fight, which turns into a wake, which turns into a party, quickly turns into a riot, which turns into a protest, which turns into a revolution, which turns into… you get the idea. It’s as fun to watch happen as it is anxiety inducing, but it’s also downright predictable. Once the narrative is clearly established as simply trying to outdo itself for the rest of the film, there’s really nothing that happens in the movie that doesn’t just make you think “well what did I expect?” Though admittedly a couple of those predictable things will definitely make you cringe in horror.
mother! is so straightforward that I suspect the mysterious marketing was purposefully done in order to add another layer to a movie that already revels in superfluous layers. Oh sure, there’s plenty of biblical beats and iconography throughout the film. There's commentary on the fine line between religion and cult, and how fanaticism corrupts. There are several cutaway scenes to the trees and grasses outside of the home, curling back in horror as the crowds build and the damage to the home widens. There’s commentary on the addictiveness of fame and what it strips from you. But at the end of the day, all of this feels like peripheral to the story of its main character: Bardem's poet, Him. For all of the focus on its titular character's reactions, and for all of the suffering she’s subjected to from beginning to end, the film seems to hinge only on the advancement of Bardem’s character. While Him, the God-like figure, is shown as a flawed artistic genius, Lawrence's character is simply dismissed as one in a line of many. We are witness to three of his “mothers” throughout the film – the other two shown in both the first and last minute of the film, listed in the cast as “Foremother” and “Maiden.”
This is where the movie rubbed me the wrong way. If this was truly a parable for nature, as Aronofsky insists in multiple interviews, the character of mother should not have been shown as simply replaceable in a line of mothers. Or if this were truly an allegory about religion, the film would not have needed to focus on Lawrence's horror of the interlopers, and we could have spent more time with Him whenever he left mother's side. Instead, the common thread throughout the film is mother’s heart blackening, rotting literally in the walls of the home, as her husband ignores her feelings and wants at every turn. The film begins and ends on women dying for the sake of a man to continue making art – quite literally giving their heart away, in the form of a crystal, to this “greater good.” Aronofsky openly cites Woman and Nature as an influence, and its concept of woman as nature is overtly on display here. Where the film loses me is in how it portrays these mothers as taking pleasure in this giving. After she finally gives up on Him and sets her own home on fire, in what initially seems like an attempt to reclaim her autonomy as she self-immolates, in a baffling twist she then uses her dying breath to encourage Him to take what he desires from her body. She is then turned literally into an object of beauty and inspiration, to be put on his mantle for his eyes only, even more precious to him than when she was alive. It’s a trope so banal that it takes this otherwise unique and interesting film and firmly grounds it in the land of flat stereotypes and clichés. By portraying the story as an unbroken cycle of female sacrifice for the greater good of Him, Aronofsky seems to flirt with the justification of these women as disposable as long as the man's still art being made. Snore.
In some ways, mother! feels like an Aronofsky riff on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981). There's the strong use of close-ups on faces in both – if you’ve ever wanted to see every angle of Jennifer Lawrence’s face, have I got a movie for you! The camera dances around its subject even as they move around the set themselves, creating a disorienting and even claustrophobic feel. Aronofsky also ventures into the surreal when it comes to the heightening in his film. Like Possession, everything in mother! goes from zero to eleven, with nothing in between. Both films manage to heighten to such a degree that they fly past horror, hit absurdist comedic beats, and then keep going so far they manage to hit horror again. mother! also pairs this heightening with dizzying and impressive sound design; things are moving, speaking and breaking all around you in the theater in a way that helps to build intensity where you might otherwise laugh or even roll your eyes.
But where as I’ve always categorized Possession as “divorce porn,” mother! is more like “sensitive-artist-boy-who-uses-pain-to-create porn.” I enjoyed the experience of watching mother!, but this cycle of female pleasure in sacrificing everything for a man seemed hackneyed if not a bit insulting. At the end of the day, I didn’t buy any deeper meaning beyond its portrayal of relationship power dynamics showcased along several wedged-in commentaries about humanity. But I can't lie, it is absolutely fun to watch this surreal slow-burn film endlessly crescendo. I'd recommend seeing it in theaters as it will most definitely overwhelm you with its anxiety inducing imagery; akin to watching every nightmare you've ever had about your teeth falling out for two hours. Oh, and after the movie you will probably want to sit down somewhere quiet, mostly because your ears are kind of ringing from the sound of incoherent voices, broken glass and explosions. Y'know, fun. A fun movie.