(this review is spoiler free up to a certain point, in which I will give a prominent spoiler warning)
Discussing Darren Aronofsky’s mother! without spoiling the experience entirely is quite the challenge. Before seeing it, a single word in a “spoiler-free” review colored my expectations and made certain elements far more apparent than they should have been at that point in the film. This drastically altered my experience with the film, and not necessarily for the better.
I’ll try not to ruin anybody’s experience here, but it’s probably good to have some idea of what you’re getting into with mother! The Rosemary’s Baby-inspired trailers suggest a tense, psychological horror movie. It’s very much NOT that. It’s ostensibly a story about a woman dealing with her husband, a creatively constipated poet. They inhabit a large house in the middle of a field and begin receiving unexpected visitors, who he embraces and she grows tired of. Things continue to escalate until the movie begins to show its hand, and you either roll with it or you reject it entirely.
I rolled with it. Viewed on its own term, mother! Is still a tad problematic, with some of its biggest strengths fueling its weaknesses. It’s extraordinarily confident, but also pretentious. It weaves a compelling ideological web, but the ideas at its core are relatively simplistic and well-treaded ground. But regardless of its weaknesses, the vision on display here is decidedly unique to Aronofsky. It revels in both the mundane and the fantastic, and isn’t afraid to take its time with its narrative or plow through a multitude of ideas and events at breakneck speed. The cinematography is gorgeous (especially considering the limitations of the setting), the actors are all game (with Jennifer Lawrence giving her most intense performance to date), and the film is sure to grow on repeat viewings, especially for those who do not catch onto its secrets quite so early in its run.
Ultimately, your mileage will vary with mother! Anybody who’s been complaining about the lack of originality in Hollywood owes it to themselves to see such an audacious, uncompromising film. On the other hand, many will write it off as pretentious bullshit, and frankly, they’re not totally wrong. But sometimes, even though a film doesn’t quite reach the lofty expectations it sets for itself, it still reaches heights that others would envy.
I’ll go more in-depth below, but DO NOT READ IT unless you’ve either seen the film, or have no interest in seeing it blind.
The word that spoiled mother! for me was “biblical.” The entire film, from start to finish, is an allegory for biblical history. Javier Bardem is essentially God. He creates Adam, represented by their first visitor. During his stay, “God” removes one of his ribs and woman shows up. Then Adam and Eve try to sneak into Bardem’s office and take a prized gem from his shelf. This represents the apple of Eden. Adam and Eve accidentally break the gem, corrupting the house.
Soon after, they are visited by their sons, who are representative of Cain and Abel. If basic biblical knowledge didn’t clue you into their identity, it should become clear when one brother murders the other by hitting him in the head, receiving a bloody mark on his own head in the process. Soon after, their now-massive (and decidedly diverse, signaling the advancement of Judaism) family shows up at the house for a wake, and refuses to obey orders. Their lack of obedience leads them to break a watermain in the house and flood it (get it?). Their lack of laws and rules inspires Bardem/God to finally begin writing again, and the work he writes is the bible. It takes off immediately, and many of the people who read it have very different interpretations of its meaning.
This quickly leads to religious killings, war, subjugation of women, and slavery, with examples throughout history manifesting and disappearing within the house one after the other. Finally, God’s child is born, and God gives it to the men in the house, who immediately kill it. To keep him with them, they eat his body (this is probably the moment that got the most gasps in my audience; even if it’s clearly metaphorical and on-the-nose, the sight of a crowd breaking a baby while carrying it and then eating its remains is pretty intense). God decides that the death of his son can serve as an important lesson about forgiveness.
You may notice that I haven’t actually discussed the titular “mother.” This is because her role is the most notably external factor in the biblical metaphor. The best way to describe her is as “mother nature.” While God creates man, Mother creates the natural environment. While he obsesses over messaging and entertains his creations, she devotes her existence to remodeling and fixing up their home. Her shock toward mankind’s behavior is a condemnation of our destruction of the natural order.
She’s also our eyes into all of biblical history. By staying with her throughout the film and initially positioning the allegory as a domestic drama, mother! forces the audience to examine God’s behavior on a human level. Seen that way, God is quite the narcissist, obsessed with his creations but constantly seeking their love and validation, even to the detriment to his own family.
This perspective on God probably isn’t new to anybody who’s considered the bible on a secular level. It’s a fairly simplistic observation. The same can be said about the reductive way that men and women are so easily conflated with destruction and creation. Ditto with the positioning that the natural world is pure and innocent and man corrupts and destroys it.
But what impressed me about mother!, and continues to impress me the more I think about it, is the way these relatively simple concepts are so intricately and effortlessly intertwined. They work in tandem to form an allegorical re-telling of the bible, delineating the natural world from mankind by merging the former with the most archetypal features of women (mothers, creators, victims), and merging the latter with the most archetypal/negative features of men (conflict, destruction, pride). It’s that deft handling of seemingly disparate themes that makes mother! such a powerful artistic vision.