Milo Garner examines Aronofsky’s complex psychological horror.
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
The best to be said of mother! is that it’s ambitious. One of the most madcap and original studio films of recent times, it’s genuinely staggering to consider that Paramount execs leafed through mother!’s script and decided to fund the thing. Much of this decision might well have been based on lead Jennifer Lawrence’s star power. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s reputation is also likely to have helped: while his track record is by no means perfect, he has at least one great film behind him and a fair few good ones. Even in some of his misfires, such as Noah – a film which had more in common with a Transformers flick than the powerful biblical epic it was trying to be – there is quality to be found. Though mother! is (mostly) a chamber piece restricted to a single location, there are commonalities between it and Noah, particularly in its religious and environmental themes. Only mother! is much, much worse.
The ostensible plot of mother! is of a poet and his housewife living together in a house far from civilisation, the first hoping for some inspiration while the second decorates. They are come upon by various unwelcome visitors, whose disruptive and continued presence cause Lawrence’s housewife deep stress. Events spiral out of control as the poet’s fame revives, and their home becomes a chaotic Gomorrah torn apart by his rabid followers. There is little actual plot in the film, and the characters too are rather thin, but this is because they aren’t characters. Aronofsky and co. have been upfront in describing the film as an allegory, but that much would be obvious from the credits alone: Lawrence is mother, and Javier Bardem, her poet husband, is Him. The two initial visitors are man and woman. Their children are oldest son and younger brother. Further supporting cast are credited with such pretensions as herald, cupbearer, and zealot.
Their roles are similarly obvious, as is the general thrust of the film, regardless of how incoherent it attempts to be (assuming that is intentional). Lawrence is Mother Earth, with the home representing her domain, and Bardem is God, who loves and creates, though he prioritizes the whims of men to his first love, the world. In result Bardem appears personable but ignorant of his wife, while she takes on the appearance of a precious victim. She is frequently ignored and squirms as her housework is undone. This leads to the unfortunate image of a woman being married to her house, a powerless Madonna who cannot (and perhaps, should not) leave her domestic sphere. I don’t feel Aronofsky meant to push a regressive ideal of womanhood with this film, but I suppose that’s what you get when you mess with Abrahamic imagery. The home is soon visited by Ed Harris’s Man, or Adam. His presence is already one of mild corruption, as he smokes and drinks in the house – Mother is visibly repulsed by both activities.
God, however, welcomes him and is intrigued by his ways, welcoming too Michelle Pfeiffer’s Woman, Eve, into his home the following day. Mother is upset that God has again ignored her for his own whim, and to her diminishment. Eve is sultry and drunken, introducing yet more sin into the home, and – more than Adam – seeking the forbidden sections of the property. Aronofsky doesn’t quite have them desire a certain fruit, but the enigmatic stone that sits in God’s study fits the slot. They eventually steal into the study together, and predictably end up breaking the stone. God is outraged, and seals the study shut. Never again will Adam and Eve return to that place; but, despite Mother’s pleading, they will also not leave the house. Then, in one of the film’s most ridiculous interludes, Adam and Eve’s children arrive complaining of some inequality in Adam’s will. The older son, who we will call Cain, scuffles with his younger brother, who we will call Abel, killing him with a doorknob. Then the LORD put a mark on Cain (Genesis 4:15) as he attempts to restrain him. At least with Adam and Eve the older actors and blurred morality created some ambiguity – this scene is instead so blatant and obvious that it undermines anything Aronofsky had built to this point. But it’s only downhill from here.
God invites back Adam and Eve, with their friends and family in tow, to mourn to the loss of Abel. Unlike the God of the Bible, and the God suggested in much of Noah, mother!’s God is not particularly vengeful and prefers forgiveness – a Christian tinge on Aronofsky’s typically Jewish angle, perhaps. Mother is naturally, yet quietly, outraged at this group invitation, as once again she hasn’t been consulted. The mourners multiply and eventually the event becomes a sort of party, with smoking, alcohol, and sex – oh, the horror! (It is interesting to note that sex and sexuality are treated with some revulsion throughout, for whatever reason.) Mother can hardly contain herself as her home undergoes minimal damage.
It is here one of the film’s few positives can be mentioned: as a technical feat it is very effective. Its close camera and emphasised sound effects create a true sense of claustrophobia and discomfort. The camera spends at least half of the film close on, or behind, Mother in a manner reflecting the style (if not the direct effect) seen in Son of Saul. Some of the extreme close-ups are less successful, but happily infrequent. The sounds of peripheral and background items are also exaggerated to further this sense of unease – the low buzz of a lightbulb might become deafening as Mother passes. Though not a typical horror film, these aspects can be praised in reference to that genre – the atmosphere is efficacious and few of the unnerving moments seem overly forced, at least in the first two thirds.
Much of this effectiveness is lost in regarding the context of the horror, however. Some comparison has been offered to Luis Buñuel, who might be the master of depicting the collapse of a bourgeois home, but where he uses religious imagery in mockery (think the replication of the Last Supper in Viridiana) Aronofsky is being totally earnest. Where he mocked the plight of the prissy bourgeois, as in The Exterminating Angel, Aronofsky hopes that we sympathise as a wealthy woman must share her home with the less fortunate for a while. But perhaps this could be explained by the psychological profile of Mother herself. After all, one of mother!’s posters directly references Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a complex portrait of a mother-to-be if there ever was one. But as referenced above, Mother is barely a character in her own right, just a stand-in for a concept. There is no direct explanation for her psychosis offered, nor is one apparently necessary – that Mother is the earth being desecrated by the mindless followers of God is enough for Aronofsky.
After the folly of man causes a flood in the house (no ark in sight) the visitors scamper and calm returns to the home, giving God the opportunity to impregnate Mother. Through this, and his experiences with Adam and Eve’s people, he is inspired, and finds himself able to write poetry again. He eventually publishes the resulting work, again without consulting Mother, and the people are enamoured with his new verse. Mother, now heavily pregnant, prepares a meal for the two, but is perturbed as some of God’s fans appear at the door. He responds to their love with love of his own, and a throng begins to appear, growing ever larger and larger. They eventually pour into the house itself, God explaining that any damage done to the home can be replaced, that he can and should be kind to his followers. This is an interesting portrait of the creator – is he being presented as a sort of egomaniac who needs the attention, or someone so filled with love for his creations that he must return it, regardless of the consequences? Whichever way, Aronofsky is delivering a flawed version of the almighty, though it isn’t clear what the message inherent in this is.
At this point the film welcomes absolute chaos to the mix. What begins as a rowdy party quickly devolves into a semi-apocalyptic warzone, with armed police battling against people in various rooms of the house; Kirstin Wiig makes an appearance as God’s publisher (the Herald) and is eventually seen summarily executing prisoners twice at once, a gun in each hand (as ridiculous as it sounds). The military appears, bombs fall. All the while we are subjected to Jennifer Lawrence wailing and running through the turmoil, which isn’t particularly pleasant. Her performance is committed, but the writing, and presumably direction, lack the necessary nuance to shape her energy. Up to this point the film had a deliberate pace, and some mystery to it, despite the obvious biblical references. Here it becomes loud, blunt, and nigh unintelligible. Aronofsky apologized to the audience of the Toronto International Film Festival while introducing the film, saying ‘sorry for what I am about to do to you.’ I feel it’s an apology we all deserve. He likely meant this as he feels the film is ‘a cruise missile shooting into a wall’, in that it is powerful, shocking, effective. He’s right, in a way, but more that it is painful, irresponsible, and ultimately unpleasant for all near enough to experience it. This isn’t a masterpiece of shock horror I can’t handle, but a near-laughable attempt to communicate his ham-fisted message with whatever terrible images he could conjure.
But, what is this message? The general swing to the film is ‘don’t damage the environment,’ but does this allegory really go further than that? Does the inclusion of Biblical stories actually emphasise this concept at all? Consider the film’s finale in disgusting bravado, wherein Mother’s child (who might or might not be called Jesus) is passed to the people of God and killed in their clamouring. They end up eating its flesh (this might be a mockery of the Christian practices around Jesus’ body – it’s hard to pin down Aronofsky’s opinions on religion) and Mother destroys the house and herself, only for God to restart the process for another attempt. What is the audience supposed to take away from this allegory? The obvious is that if we don’t stop destroying the earth we’ll find ourselves in some sort of apocalypse, but then the film is so non-specific about the destruction of the earth itself that it is rendered impotent. Does it mean for us to not drink or smoke, that general hedonism (including sex for reasons other than copulation) should be shunned? That religious fanaticism is dangerous to the world? Potentially, but again the actual point of it all is illusive – by its final third mother! simply becomes a kind of allegorical torture porn without any proper resolution. Films shouldn’t find themselves forced into resolutions and obvious messages, of course, but when the body of the work is so painfully overt otherwise, the payoff needs to justify itself. But is Aronofsky not the same man who directed The Wrestler, a film that proves him a man of quality? I say unto him – those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent (Revelation 3:19).
mother! is out now in UK cinemas. Check out the trailer below.