'Mother!' Spoiler Review: So Let's Talk About What The Heck This Movie Is About

(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.

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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.


The Pain Of Being Married To An Artist

Now, we delve into the extra-textual. You may have noticed (or have read other people writing about this topic) that there's a fairly large age gap between Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence. Bardem is 48 and Lawrence is 27. You may also know that Lawrence began dating Darren Aronofsky, who is also 48, after making this movie. Aronofsky's relationship with Weisz, another big-name actress, ended a few years ago, but its existence is difficult to ignore considering what occurs in mother!. As such, it's easy to interpret parts of this film as Aronofsky's perception of what it must be like for any woman to be involved with a male artist, or what it must have been like for Weisz to be engaged to him.

In this reading, the characters played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, their warring sons, Him's constantly chipper agent played by Kristen Wiig (because, y'know, why not have Kristen Wiig show up for two minutes amidst general chaos?), and everyone else are just interlopers who won't give a presumably loving couple a minute of peace. Or, rather, they're all interlopers who Him would rather spend time with as opposed to spending time with his doting wife. Him seems to love Mother – whenever she pushes him, tries to point out that he's ignoring her at every turn in favor of a gaggle of strangers whose number inexplicably grows with each passing second, he tries to play the warm and sensitive husband. But even in the wild finale — as an example, Wiig's character starts out as blandly friendly, until the riot breaks out, when she's ordering that naysayers get shot and killed — Mother is on her own.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique deliberately keep the camera as close to Lawrence as possible, making it so Mother can't even escape the frame, let alone get a moment of peace in a place she wants "to make a paradise." When Him appears, Mother becomes subservient in a sense, treated callously by the random people who have shown up to spend time at their house, insulted viciously by other men, and in what is the most unsettling moment of the film, physically beaten by his followers. (Yes, I know: a lot of nutty stuff happens in this movie, but the shock value of a moment like Mother's baby being eaten by Him's followers cannot exceed the visceral nastiness of watching her being physically harmed.) Those who love Him and his work ignore Mother, in his permanent thrall. What's more disturbing: Him may prefer this dynamic.

In these scenes, especially those where Harris and Pfeiffer's characters monopolize Him for their own interest, we are meant to pity Mother. She's a gorgeous young woman – Harris almost instantly notes that he presumed she was Him's daughter – and treats her husband so well that she's almost a caricature of the suburbanite housewife. And yet, she's treated scornfully by those around her, and Him barely takes notice of her. Maybe this is how Aronofsky has chosen to process the end of his relationship with Weisz, or how he perceives it when a woman is cast to the side in favor of her partner.

Weisz, it should be noted, is an exceptionally talented Oscar-winning actress, which would seemingly put a pin in this theory. (Mother is shown to be a capable housewife, but doesn't seem to have any interest in other extracurriculars.) Yet there is something unavoidable about the vagaries of real life impeding on this story, one in which the male character is seen as dominant by everyone else and his wife, as immortalized in the title, is lowercase through and through. If The Fountain could be seen as a warped love letter to Weisz, as some critics have argued, mother! could be the warped apologia to her after the dissolution of their relationship.

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Both Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence have said that mother! is actually an allegory for how humanity treats the environment, positing her character as Mother Nature (and presumably Bardem's character as God) and all of the interlopers as those who wish to destroy the natural beauty of the world. The multitude of possibilities speaks to something that I found unable to ignore at the core of this film: despite a truly dedicated lead performance, mother! is a series of metaphors in search of a connective thread.

Aronofsky excels at making films that are claustrophobic, suspenseful, and manic, as his lead characters lose their minds and often self-harm to the point of death. On the surface, that's exactly what happens in mother!. Mother starts as a placid and benevolent figure, but the opening moments foreshadow the fiery finale. The problem is not that this film doesn't fit in with the rest of Aronofsky's works. It's that this movie is largely all surface. Each of the allegories mentioned above is fun to discuss and write about, and there are striking images (as you would expect) within. But it's a far cry from his best film, Black Swan, which also depicts the mental and physical unraveling of a beautiful young woman in the name of pleasing an older man. Both Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence give themselves over fully to their respective characters, but there's far more going on in the 2010 thriller than in this new film. mother! is a remarkably realized vision, but oddly hollow if you move past the metaphors.