Back when mother! was released, critics had a seemingly impossible task of classifying the movie. Was it a drama? (maybe) A comedy? (certainly no) A mystery (yes, but not in a good way) Horror? (yes) Romance? (yes, but not in the traditional sense) Art-house? (certainly yes)
With the relatively simple task of categorization dashed against the rocks, critics then had to describe the plot. With most pieces of abstract art, interpretation is (mostly) left to the viewer. I’ll do my best to describe what happens below. The fact that mother! is open to many interpretations is not by itself a virtue. Art by definition and movies in particular invite audience interpretation. Some movies are more “open” than others, but all can be interpreted however the moviegoer wishes.
Lastly, critics needed to state whether mother! was “good” or not. Opinions on Rotten Tomatoes range from “like nothing you’ve ever seen before“ to “pretentious mess” to “worst movie of the century” to “brilliant” to “a wild, memorable ride” to “raw and compelling” to “squirm-inducing fun”.
Given the wide spectrum of opinions on mother!, what did I make of it? On the question of how to classify or categorize the movie, I’d put it in the religious allegory category, decidedly Christian. While other Christian allegorical films simply have a character stand in for Jesus (ex: The Shawshank Redemption, The Chronicles of Narnia, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest), mother! is a riff on the Bible, Old and New Testament.
You’ll have to forgive my excessive use of personal pronouns in the analysis below. The credits list Jennifer Lawrence as Mother and Javier Bardem as Him.
The first half of the movie borrows heavily from the Old Testament. Him and Mother create a world out of nothingness. He is a writer struggling from writer’s block. She is helping Him rebuild his childhood home that was devastated by fire, providing Him with a safe and comfortable place to write. At one point Mother remarks that she wants to create a “paradise”. Soon, Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) intrude on their quiet home, and He is inexplicably more than happy to let them move on in. While the movie doesn’t explicitly state that He created them, the movie implies that He created them as a source of adoration. They appear to be stand-ins for Adam and Eve, albeit decades into their union. That Man has an open wound on his side makes the Adam analogy apropos.
Mother is appalled that He would let Man and Woman into their world, but He assures her that everything will be fine. In one of the more blatantly misogynistic pieces of dialog in the movie, Woman crudely tells Her that Mother needs to put out in order to keep Him interested. Like many other elements of the movie, that scene is a very gross oversimplification of the dynamic between men and women, but it’s Aronofsky’s movie, and he’s entitled to his opinions.
Mother inspects Man’s duffel bag and finds a picture of Him in it. But it’s not a normal picture. To me, it looked like a prayer card, which would make sense given the level of adoration Man has for Him. Aronofsky apparently is using Him as a stand-in for God, which is understandable, given that both poets and God are creators, albeit on a vastly different scale.
Shortly afterwards, Man and Woman’s two son’s come by, with one arguing about Man’s will (in the legal sense). The brothers fight, ala Cain and Abel, with one brother dying off-screen. In the wake that follows, a group of hanger’s-on come into the house and seemingly take over. The people are annoying to varying degrees. A couple attempt to have sex in Him and Mother’s bedroom. Another try to help by painting the house. In another gross example of misogyny, one man calls Mother the c-word after She rebuffed his crude advances. The scene seems to symbolize how mankind increasingly dominated the world, and while some people may have good intentions, most are selfish and destructive and disrespectful.
Eventually, the group (mankind) are sent out of the home. Mother confronts Him about His lack of interest in her, and the two make passionate love. She realizes she is pregnant the following morning, and this realization forces Him out of his writer’s block.
Him lets Mother read his poetry, and she admits she likes it. Mother is shocked when He reveals to her that he had already sent his work to his publicist. Him’s work sells extremely well, and Mother creates an immense feast for the two of them. Almost instantly, people show up at their home, at first they are well wishers, wanting only photographs and autographs from Him. The crowd then turns destructive, taking souvenirs from the home. Moses and the Ten Commandments seemed to be the main influence in this section. Again, Him is perfectly fine with the horrible behavior of his admirers.
Eventually the home delves into chaos. Some of the well-wishers begin performing religious rituals. A group of military personnel confront a group of protestors. Him’s publicist executes people for reasons unknown. The violence displayed on both sides apparently symbolizes those who perform violent acts in God’s name. The stress forces Mother into premature labor. Each of Mother’s contractions shakes the Earth.
Mother quickly gives birth. He wants to show his son to the crowd, to which Mother says no. Having witnessed the crowd’s abhorrent behavior first-hand, she doesn’t feel the child would be safe with the people. Eventually, He waits until Mother falls asleep and gives the baby over to the crowd. At first, all violence stops as the crows pass the baby along overhead. Then the baby is killed. Whether this was accidental or otherwise is unknown. All we hear is a snapping sound and the baby stops crying. When He insists that they need to forgive the people for their transgression, the parallels to the New Testament are clear. Understandably, Mother does not want to forgive anyone for killing her baby. She lashes out, killing some of the people nearby. The crowd attacks her and punches her, several times in the face. Him finally steps in to protect Mother, and She finds the people eating her baby’s flesh. Those familiar with the holy sacraments of the Eucharist will understand what is going on here.
Seeing her baby devoured by those that killed it, Mother reaches her breaking point. She heads to the basement and sets the oil from the furnace on fire. The home and all of the people are destroyed, and She suffers serious injuries. He uses Mother’s love for Him to recreate the world again. The end.
Several critics have picked up on how Aranofsky uses Him as a surrogate for an artist. Certainly Him would not be the first artist to be inspired by nature. I think that’s a narrow, secular view of the material though. If we follow along with the Christian mythology being utilized here, Him certainly serves as a stand-in for God, the original artist. But while the Christian trinity is God, His Son and the Holy Spirit, mother! has a slightly different trinity of God, Earth, and their newborn child.
Aranofsky is certainly well-versed in Christian mythology. He previously did a lot of research on the story of Noah and the flood to fashion a two-hour and eighteen minute movie around a relatively smaller part of the Old Testament. With mother!, Aranofsky appears to be using the belief system espoused in the Bible as a reason for the state of the world we live in today. Mankind’s violent and selfish behavior has brought the world (a.k.a. Mother Earth) to the brink of destruction. Aranofsky see’s God as complicit in mankind’s behavior, though, since all God seemingly wants from mankind is their devotion. So long as he receives adoration from his creation, he could care less about what happens to the world they live in.
Several critics have pointed out that Jennifer Lawrence is miscast in this movie. For me, her best performances are those where she plays a character who acts, instead of one who reacts to events around her (Hunger Games, Silver Lining Playbook, American Hustle). Seeing her be put-upon for over two hours proved to be a rough movie watching experience.
Regardless of the film’s underlying conceits, mother! is also a feat of movie-making skill. Aranofsky is an extremely skilled director. His subtle use of special effects and sound design prove that he is an expert filmmaker. The staging of the protests and resulting military action from inside the house is something to behold.
Recommending mother! is not easy. For those versed in Christian mythology, watching the movie and pointing out the biblical parallels can be a sort of parlor game. I’m not sure what viewers with a basis in other religious belief systems would get out of it though.