“Dear Lord, Please save us from your followers.”
God may be an egotistical asshole, but humanity sucks. This might be a thesis statement for Darren Aronofsky’s new feature mother!, a blistering fever dream that acts as an apologia, a self-indictment, a missive on the state of fandom in the modern age, a sermon, a plea for climate change, and a bible corrective. This is art, or maybe even Art, but make no bones about it, this is one of the messiest most self-indulgent pieces of art since The Neon Demon. Just like Nicholas Winding Refn’s earlier film, mother! is going to divide viewers along broad lines.
mother! is an allegory first and a story second. Those seeking insight into human relationships will be frustrated beyond belief. On the surface of this story, Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular mother, a woman married to Him (Javier Bardem), a poet who lost everything in a fire that burned the house down, taking his life’s work with it. she putters around the house, figuring out what shade of green goes best on the wall or what type of food would be best for Him to eat. He sits in His office trying to do work, but accomplishing little until a rabid fan (Ed Harris) invites himself into Their habitat, claiming somebody told him it was a B&B. This man is soon followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). And then all humanity breaks loose.
Who you are is going to change how you see this movie.
Many women are trying to see mother! as a work of feminist art, if only because mother! is a work told completely through mother’s eyes. Aronofsky never lets the camera stray from mother’s point of view, either focusing on her face or presenting the image that she is watching. We, the audience, are put in mother’s shoes. The problem is, mother! most certainly isn’t feminist, and women are getting angry at Aronofsky for making a story about women’s oppression without making mother an active character. Throughout the first 2 acts, mother is constantly put upon by Him and His followers, but she is never respected or even made into more than an allegorical symbol. The explicitly misogynistic violence targeted at her in the third act is shocking and triggering, yet it does little more than turn mother! into a holy version of the rape-revenge story. Aronofsky knows that he’s inflicting damage on women, but does he even come close to understanding that damage? That this movie steals so liberally from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion shows that he may not have that capacity.
Pop culture addicts will see this as Darren Aronofsky commenting on the state of fandom and riots. In a film that bears more than a bit of resemblance to The Wall, He is yet another in a long line of tortured white male artists whose suffering and misogyny creates works of extreme popularity leading to a rabid fanaticism. His work is Important and His fans are the worst sorts of fans who misbehave of their own will without apology. To these viewers, they may even see mother! as an apologia for Aranofsky’s failed marriage to Rachel Weisz using his current girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence, as her stand-in. If we see Darren Aronofsky imagining himself in the role of the married but constipated artist who doesn’t fuck his wife, he’s also imagining himself as an unsympathetic asshole who constantly ignores mother’s needs. mother is kept as a passive creature (only He gets a capitalized character name in the end credits), subject to abuse no matter how much protest she fires off.
News addicts will see the latter acts of the movie as having direct metaphors to the worst of modern humanity. As His fans plow through the house, they re-enact some of the worst atrocities we have put on display. People are jailed, killed, the house is systematically raped and destroyed, cops are brought in, cults are formed. By the end, this world turns into a hellscape that recalls the Romans, the Holocaust, Black Lives Matter, and various other behaviors of our inhumanity. mother, the ever giving woman, always has to clean up after all of humanity.
As a lapsed Catholic, the main movie I saw was Darren Aronofsky running through the entire Biblical history in a fast-paced LSD-soaked two hour rant. The Judeo-Christian bible is a misogynistic piece of work with few female characters and even fewer strong women who lead the way. There are no Junos, Heras or Taras in the Bible. mother! works as a satirical mini-corrective, adding the important role of Mother Earth to the Christian bible while maintaining her role as an abused housewife on which God puts the experiments. mother is the woman on whom all flaws will be placed, and the one who cleans up after His messes. This seems like it could be read as a feminist read on the bible, but Aronofsky is content to leave the gender essentialism in tact.
Just as he plows through a kaleidoscopic variety of meanings, Aronofsky blazes through cinematic references as deep and wide as the bible itself. mother! begins as a Bunuelian satire of manners, as humanity becomes the guests who won’t leave in The Exterminating Angel (complete with pipe bursting). This is all told through through the eyes of mother, sometimes focusing on her face, sometimes what she sees, and sometimes as a third person narrative, taking on the narrative blur of Children of Men, a much simpler movie about the perils of humanity. mother! is as broad and intense as a Hironymous Bosch painting, as absurd as Dali, as campy as The Apple, as violent as The Neon Demon, as hysterical as Black Swan, as angry as Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, and perhaps the most misanthropic film committed to celluloid. mother! is not a nice piece of art to be passively consumed and maybe see yourself reflected in its mirror. mother! earns its bang by asking you to wrestle with it’s hateful view of humanity even as it wrestles with you.
Some will see mother! as a self-serious piece of Pretentious Art, much like The Neon Demon before it. Yes and no. It is that, and it is also as hilariously viciously ironic as you can imagine. Some of the scenes of grotesquery are stomach-churningly gross and gut-bustingly hilarious at once. There’s a Grand Guignol madness to this hallucinatory experience, and you will either love or hate this absolutely bizarre work of…whatever it is.
If at the end of this review you are still inclined to see it, you must see it in theaters. The sound design of this movie is impeccably superb, switching channels and swirling around you like madness. Every dropped thud, every vocalization, every knock on wood or gun fired is placed in such a directional manned that you know where everybody else is in relation to mother. mother!‘s use of the surround environment that just hearing it is worth the price of admission alone.
I want to close out this review with a story my mother tells over and over again. She said that, as a child, her grandmother used to read the Bible repeatedly. Her grandmother used to say “I don’t know why people would read anything else. The Bible has everything you could ever want. Sex, violence, murder, infidelity, mystery and intrigue. It’s humanity in a nutshell.” I feel the same about mother!