mother! early reviews

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Darren Aronofsky’s mother!)

Darren Aronofsky’s talents extend beyond his gripping filmmaking, inspiring intense debate among those who watch the finished product. His latest film, mother!, is starting to inspire the loudest debate of all: those who have seen the film (whether or not they’ve walked out before it ended) are fiercely divided among those who love it and those who helped give it a CinemaScore of F this past weekend. Technically, a lot happens in mother!, but there’s not exactly a plot or character arcs on display (neither of which, of course, are necessary). The film does bear similarities to many of Aronofsky’s previous films, from Black Swan to Noah, but it’s still very singular. What else could you call a movie where a massive group of people devour a newborn baby?

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. To attempt to answer the question at the core of mother! — to wit, what the hell is this about? — it’s worth exploring the multiple allegories that present themselves throughout.

Opening Up the Good Book

Let’s acknowledge that it’s to Darren Aronofsky’s credit that two people can watch this movie and walk out with wildly different interpretations to what they just saw. Ostensibly, mother! is about a married couple living in a beautiful country house in the middle of nowhere who unexpectedly have to deal with an ever-growing group of guests arriving at all hours of the day. The husband, credited only as Him (Javier Bardem), is a celebrated poet who has writer’s block as the film begins. The wife, credited as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), occupies her day by renovating the three-story house and performing duties that would feel appropriate to a wife in the 1940s: cooking, cleaning, and generally trying to please her mercurial spouse.

Him is a creator. That word crops up often enough in the script to make its intentions clear, and that’s before Him and Mother are visited by their first two guests – a Man (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) – who are not only great admirers of Him’s work, but who need a place to say for reasons that elude Mother’s understanding but are enough to please Him. Mother is perhaps too polite to push Him at first, but relents when Him reveals that the Man has told Him that he’s dying and simply wished to visit the artist before he passes away.

Both the Man and Woman are unable to stop nosing into Him’s affairs, even sneaking into his office to look upon a mysterious gem that he keeps on a pedestal. (More about that later.) Although she tries to keep Him’s office free of visitors, Mother soon has to deal with two new houseguests: the Man and Woman’s large adult sons, two warring brothers who immediately get into a fight over the Man’s will until the older son (Domhnall Gleeson) kills the younger son (Brian Gleeson, and yes, Domhnall is his real-life brother).

These elements alone are not hard to tie to some of the more recognizable stories from the Bible, stories whose general gist you know even if, like me, you’re not a terribly religious person. There is the story of Adam and Eve, and their being unable to resist the forbidden fruit, a la the Man and Woman and Him’s mysterious gem, which they accidentally break after attempting to hold it. And there is the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, two brothers overcome with jealousy who fight each other, with the older brother killing the younger one.

It’s almost too easy to see mother! as a combination of religious allegories all thrown into the same stew. A makeshift funeral and wake for the Youngest Brother (as the film credits him) goes raucously awry when a group of guests refuse to listen to Mother’s desperate pleas and destroy a sink in their kitchen, causing a water line break. Then, finally, the Man and Woman vacate the premises, after which Him and Mother have passionate sex, which leads to her being pregnant with their first child and him getting the inspiration to write a new piece.

The second and final section of the film depicts Mother trying to tend her house on the same day when a) Him is celebrating the publication of his latest work with a never-ending group of fans and b) she ends up giving birth to a baby boy. The celebration quickly devolves from a wild party to a genuine and violent riot replete with protesters, riot police, torture, and murder. The whole mad affair culminates with Mother delivering her child in Him’s previously walled-off study. After an initial period of rest, Him takes the child to satiate his followers; they take the child, break its neck, and then literally eat it down to the bone, to Mother’s horror and fury. Here, too, there are recognizable enough Biblical connections: their newborn could be the baby Jesus, and the way that the Man’s rabid fans instantly shift from being in awe of the child to killing and consuming him could reflect the latter days of Jesus before his crucifixion.

The final moments of the film, after Mother reasonably loses her patience and burns down the house, could very clearly speak to the religious angle. The only survivors of the blast — leaving aside the fact that were this a more real-world story, which it’s not, no one could possibly make it out alive — are Him and Mother. Him calls himself the creator as he cradles Mother’s burning body to her final resting place, the former making it out without a scratch on him. He’s able to restart this cycle by taking another of the mysterious gems out of Mother’s body, where her heart resided. Then, a new young woman and a new house rise from the ashes, just as they did when Lawrence’s character materialized at the start.

So that could be what’s going on in mother!. But there are other metaphors present within the text and subtext, impossible to avoid.

mother cinemascore

It’s Hard Out Here For An Artist

mother! opens and closes with scenes that suggest the events we see in between have happened before and will happen again. The opening image is of one young woman (not Lawrence) standing in the middle of a fiery blaze, a tear trailing down her cheek before she dies and leaves behind the aforementioned sparkling gem that Harris’ Man and Pfeiffer’s Woman break later.

Then in those final moments, there’s Lawrence standing in the middle of another fiery blaze, having destroyed the house that was meant to bring her such joy, a tear trailing down her cheek. Him survives both blazes and is able to retrieve another gem from Mother, literally reaching into her burning body, ripping out her heart, and excavating to discover the gem. Once Mother dies, turning to ash, Him places the gem on a pedestal and the house revives itself. And then we see Him’s bed, a new young woman lying on it. She wakes up, turns, calls for him, and the movie ends. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I know: these could suggest the religious connections. But in between the two explosions, Him and Mother grapple with their own awkward and sometimes icy relationship. First, they do so via their older married guests, the latter of whom harangues Mother about having children, acting like the younger woman’s actual mother despite barely knowing her. Later, Mother goads Him about the fact that they’re never physical together, after which they finally have sex. Instantly, two things happen: Mother declares herself to be pregnant and Him all but has a light bulb pop up over his head. He’s inspired to write a new work, so much so that he doesn’t even get dressed before he gets the words out of his head. The final result is apparently perfect, something that Mother as well as his eventual hangers-on seem to believe.

The final stretch of film is genuinely, intentionally chaotic: Mother giving birth in Him’s study is an oasis in violence, almost like Aronofsky’s version of the third act of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. And yet, here is a second reading: mother! is not about religion as much as it is about the experience of working through a creative muse, lighting upon an idea for a work of art, making the work of art, and releasing it upon a public that is at turns appreciative and vicious, often with barely any separation between the two. The fans who treat Mother’s child like it’s in a rock concert’s mosh pit and then devour the babe are the equivalent of an artist’s devotees indulging in their latest work. Him could be Aronofsky himself (or any artist who’s confident enough to believe they’re worth being idolized), Mother is the artist’s muse, and the baby is the culmination of whatever inspires the artist.

Considering this and the next allegorical possibility, it’s difficult to imagine that Bardem is playing anyone but Aronofsky. That in mind, it’s up for grabs to figure out which of Aronofsky’s previous films this could refer to. Maybe it’s The Fountain, which spent years in development before becoming a fully realized passion project that starred his then-fiancée Rachel Weisz and has gained a cult following over the years. Or maybe it’s Noah, a nakedly religious story that also spent years in development before becoming a less celebrated work than earlier successes like Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream.

Whatever the case, much of mother! feels like Darren Aronofsky commenting on just how hard it is for him, or for any artist, to come up with something new. It’s only through being pushed and insulted and goaded that Him gains true, pure inspiration: when Mother snaps at him about his coldness towards her physically, he responds roughly in that passionate sex scene that begins as something closer to rape before turning (apparently) consensual. When we smash-cut to the seemingly content couple asleep in bed, Mother seems to inherently, intuitively know that she is pregnant, that something new is burrowing within her. That unwavering knowledge leads Him to immediately leap out of bed and start writing, sitting on the floor of their living room naked, just so he can get whatever is in his mind onto a sheet of paper. This shared intuition manifests quickly; Mother only gets a few seconds with her own child before it becomes the fans’ property. And then, after a period of destruction, the cycle starts again. Him receives a new muse, a new gem, and a new canvas on which to create his next magnum opus.

If the religious angle is textual, and the artistic angle is a mix of textual and subtextual, then it’s only fitting for the final allegory to leap even further.

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.