Warning: Review contains plot spoilers
In the abstract, it’s often assumed that directors working in the indie space ultimately want to use their small scale successes in order to convince Hollywood studios to finance their bigger and more expensive visions. Darren Aronofsky at one point seemed like he was destined to do just that after the increasing successes of his micro-budget debut Pi and his indie classic Requiem for a Dream. In fact he was actually approached to pitch ideas for Batman movies around the same time that Christopher Nolan (a guy who has very much succeeded in blending his vision with Hollywood sized budgets) was, but unlike Nolan Aronofsky style and vision proved to be a little too weird and intense for general audiences and he didn’t seem interested in making a compromised commercial work like Insomnia as a stepping stone to bigger things. Instead he put all his efforts towards The Fountain a crazy little movie made on a lower budget than he probably wanted and which likely baffled the few general audiences who went to it. From there he went back to indie ambitions and made a pair of small movies about obsessive performers called The Wrestler and Black Swan, the latter of which became an unexpected hundred million dollar hit with the mainstream. With that clout it seemed like Aronofsky was finally going to enter the world of blockbuster filmmaking but the big budget movie he chose to make with his clout was of all things a biblical epic called Noah which did make some money but was seen more as an oddity (and not the good kind of oddity) than as any kind of artistic triumph. As such he’s back to the world of small budgets and seems to have picked up where Black Swan left off with his new film mother!.
mother! is set entirely within a large house in the country in an unknown state and features characters who aren’t given proper names, for simplicity’s sake I will largely be referring to characters by the names of their actors. It begins with a character played by Jennifer Lawrence waking up and looking for her older husband, a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block played by Javier Bardem. The two are childless and the wife is in the process of renovating the old home that they live in. Everything changes one day when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door and the husband quickly invites him to stay with them, in part because he seems to be a fan of the author’s work, without consulting with his wife. Harris quickly proves himself to be a bore who smokes in the house and overstays his welcome, especially when his wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer shows up and proves to be even more intrusive than her husband and things very quickly escalate from there.
As you might guess from the business with the names and a few other rather surreal aspects, mother! is not a movie that you should necessarily take literally although this isn’t readily apparent from moment one. Right away it becomes apparent that, like Black Swan before it this is a film that draws heavy inspiration from some of Roman Polanski’s more paranoid early films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and much of the film’s tension lies in the way its protagonist finds herself in situations she finds sinister while everyone else seems nonplussed. However, there are other elements of the film which feel surreal in ways that a Polanski thriller wouldn’t and there are elements that go entirely unexplained like an open wound she spots on Ed Harris’ back and the medication that she takes throughout the film and as things progress it becomes more and more clear that this film is set in a sort of world of the mind rather than conventional reality.
That the main character here is a woman is integral and not just because of the title. The Jennifer Lawrence character here is in a very decidedly unequal marriage to a domineering husband who is twenty years her senior, views the home they’re living in as his rather than theirs, and doesn’t seek her permission or advice when making decisions that affect both of them. In some ways she almost feels like a woman driven mad by the “benevolent” control of her husband like the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it might not be a coincidence that one of the first things we see her do in the movie is paint one of her walls yellow. There is also the element here that Bardem’s character is a celebrity of sorts and that adds a certain element to their relationship. Aronofsky was married to Rachel Weisz from 2001 to 2010, perhaps this is an expression of what it’s like to be married to a movie star who has people constantly trying to find out more and more about their personal lives. Alternately the movie could be something of a confessional effort expressing his own guilt for having subjected the various women in his life to the pressures of being married to someone who’s perhaps more dedicated to their work and the inspiration thereof than they are to their marriage and who constantly has people coming in and out of his life telling him how much of “genius” he is while ignoring the woman next to him.
So far I’ve looked at ways to interpret the movie when looking at it as a somewhat straightforward narrative, things get even crazier when you start looking at it as an elaborate biblical allegory. Perhaps Bardem is a stand-in for God (the creator), perhaps Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the study is Eden, the crystal is the fruit from the tree of life, and the sink breaking which transitions the film into the second half is the great flood that occurred at the end of Genesis. The second half can similarly be interpreted as the New Testament and its aftermath with the child being Jesus, the published poem being the bible, and the finale being a stand-in for the apocalypse. The parallels are pretty hard to deny once you spot them. What isn’t so clear is what Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this allegory is supposed to be. Her role as the mother of the child who is killed and whose flesh is then eaten to save people would suggest that she’s Mary, but she’s no virgin and her presence in the first half would seem to clash with this interpretation and so would the timing of the Messiah’s birth and her place in the film’s ending.
It is more likely that her role ties in with another coded allegory embedded in the film involving environmentalism. In this view of the film she is playing “mother earth” or a sort of spirit of and personification of nature. Someone who looks on with disgust as Bardem/God lets loose humanity upon her paradise and watches powerless to intervene as they wreck things and generally abuse the freedoms they’ve been granted and get it into their heads that they own the place. This would certainly explain her general ineffectualness in stopping all the unwanted guests and under this framing the film’s climax would perhaps be a stand-in for global warming causing humanity’s extinction and the rebirth of sorts at the end would perhaps suggest the Earth persevering eventually after humanity has died off. The spirit of the earth, of course, is not really part of the bible so this fusion of Judeo-Christian stories with a strong environmental message is certainly reminiscent of what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah and the vaguely new age idea of the Earth spirit perhaps points to The Fountain.
Either way, the fact that he’s mixing his allegories like that is certainly audacious if perhaps a little messy. All that said, I don’t want all the search for interpretations to overshadow the fact that mother! simply works as a piece of cinema. The early scenes are tense in the way they put you in the middle of Jennifer Lawrence’s frustration and they way things get increasingly crazy in the second half is pretty thrilling. That second half reminded me a little bit of the ending of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise but I think it works better here, in part because it establishes a point of view character better and it “goes there” in a way that feels more organically interesting. The film also reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with it’s unnamed protagonists, religious imagery, dips into surrealism, and occasional interest in shock value during its second half. What the film is not really is a horror film, which is what the film’s trailers make it look like. That misleading advertising is probably a big part of why there have been a number of reports recently about angry audiences leaving the film confused and unsatisfied. That reaction is unfortunate, but perhaps not unexpected. If Luis Buñuel had somehow gotten Paramount pictures to finance The Exterminating Angel and made it with major movie stars and got it released nationwide in-between screenings of Dr. No and How the West was Won I’m guessing that wouldn’t have gotten a great Cinemascore either, but sometimes filmmakers need to break out of their usual mold and if they’re able to do it on a scale like this that’s something that should be celebrated.