mother! Review: When An Artist Plays God

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Just to get this out of the way, the less you know going into mother! the better. In fact, if you have any inkling to go see it, I suggest stopping here and going before spoilers and theories hit the web en mass. Open your mind to let in an ambitious filmmaker express to you what he wants to express. It’s ultimately unlike any film you’ve ever seen, putting itself beyond categorization like only the best auteurs have been able to. When that happens, it’s best to let the work wash over you without any preconceived notions, think and discuss, and then watch it again.

Okay, you’re back? Great, now let’s dig in.

mother! tells you nothing about itself because doing so would ruin its mysticism. Marketed as a home invasion story about two newlyweds in their secluded home in the woods, what we end up getting is far wilder, weirder, and, yes, more pretentious. But hey, name a great philosophical auteur of cinema who’s works weren’t a little pretentious. I’ll wait.

Darren Aronofsky’s winding road to greatness hasn’t been without its bumps. 2014’s Noah came up flat after Black Swan became one of the most talked about films of 2010. The latter, one of the director’s more audience friendly, if you can call it that, works seems to be becoming what he’ll be remembered most for, alongside his indie classic Requiem for a Dream. But both are flawed films, with his masterpieces, The Fountain and The Wrestler, seemingly gone from the zeitgeist. mother! is closest in structure and tone to Black Swan, but closest thematically and in terms of meat to The Fountain. Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular lower-cased mother, while Javier Bardem plays Him, and yes the distinction in capitalization is important. They’re both terrific, by the way, but in the same way that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were in Eyes Wide Shut, where they’re so in tune with the director’s bizarre vision that their brilliance isn’t as easily recognizable.

Their house, in the midst of a meadow with no roads leading to it, is to be their paradise, she says. She and Him are creating something together, something natural, something they risk losing as others get involved. First, a man (Ed Harris) shows up at their door. Bardem’s Him is a famous poet, who the man greatly admires. Second, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, boasting a steely chill that makes her acting hiatus seem like a crime) shows up, but she doesn’t have the same respect for the couple’s privacy as her husband does. Things soon spiral out of control, and the house is filled with people, defiling it, just trying to get a piece of what they have.

The metaphors play out right on the surface, where Aronofsky, never one for subtlety, likes them. But they allow the film to retain its intimate take on the issues its tackling. And they are big, huge, gargantuan issues worthy of exploration, as they reach for the grand arc of humanity at large, from beginning to end, showing us the flaws that look to swallow us whole. In short, and hopefully without risking tainting the wide variety of interpretations you may have had (I’ll go deep into spoilery theorizing below my review grade), mother! is an environmentally conscious cautionary tale told with an extensive Old Testament allegory through the lens of modern society and its need for instant gratification. Remember when I called Aronofsky pretentious? This is why.

But the film, by the grace of God (or Him), achieves a delicate balance of all of that with a unique visual identity and, at least on my second viewing, a deep, stirring emotionality. mother! may be too much of a puzzle to rip your heart out on first watch, but once you’ve figured out enough of it for a second go, well let’s just say I found myself openly weeping during the disturbing, relentless third act.

Where the film leaves you, it’s pretty hard to find any hope. Are we destined to doom ourselves into oblivion? We pray to God, but is it possible that he might be too late? Hope can be found in mother! through one, singular constant: love. Where that love brings us, and who it might be meant for is up to interpretation, but it’s existence is crucial to our own. That realization, and mother!‘s insane, masterful expression of such is what makes Aronofsky an outright genius. Grade: A

By Matt Dougherty


What It All Means…I Think (MAJOR SPOILERS):

  • Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and the House: Lawrence is meant to be Mother Nature, created by Bardem’s God. The house is Earth, at its most pure when its just the two of them, and then overpopulated as the film delivers images of modern issues.
  • Ed Harris, Michelle Pfieffer, and Their Sons: Harris at first seems like a lost traveler, but he reveals himself to be a worshiper of Bardem’s poetry. There’s no mention of his wife until after Lawrence sees her husband tending to him, with an open wound around by his ribs, at night. The next day, Michelle Pfeiffer suddenly shows up, seemingly out of nowhere. In the Bible, God created Eve from Adam’s rib (Pfeiffer’s character at one point is even seen wearing only a green bra with leaves on it). And where does Pfieffer’s character seem to be so attracted? The one place in the house the couple doesn’t want them exploring, the forbidden fruit if you will. Their sons who show up later, with one killing the other, resemble Cain and Abel.
  • Everyone Else: What is it that makes everyone disappear? A couple people keep sitting on the sink, which Lawrence continuously tells them not to do since it’s not secured to the wall yet. It inevitably breaks, and a bunch of water spills all over the house. The great flood?
  • All the Crazy Sh*t In the Third Act: Before going into labor, Lawrence’s character runs through her home to see refugee camps, religious rituals, protesters, riots, and ultimately war. This is likely Aronofsky’s critical view of our species at the present. Can’t say we don’t deserve it a little.
  • The BabyNo Jesus Christ figure shows up before the apocalyptic ending, but the baby Lawrence gives birth to could be seen as the Second Coming of sorts, which means that the end of the world is upon them. After the people devour the baby, desperate for hope, Lawrence lets the house go up in flames, thus “ending the world.”
  • In Sum: How the invaders treat the house seems to be an allegory for how humanity treats the Earth, thus making mother! a film with a message about climate change, as well as conflict and war at large. Basically, this film is against anything that’s going to kill the Earth. And us. But it’s also loaded with Biblical imagery to capture the scope of who we are, where we came from, and what the consequences could be of what we’re doing. If you want to peel it back another layer, Bardem’s creations can also be seen as an exploration of how an artist finds their inspiration (“The inspiration” is what Kristen Wiig’s character calls Lawrence’s), the creative process, and society responds to and consumes art (all the paparazzi type people). If you have any other thoughts on this film, please comment below! This is one I’m going to want to discuss for a long, long time.

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