Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is sure to polarize audiences. Although it looks like a home invasion thriller, the film uses allegory and gore to explore an issue both ancient and timely. I cannot fully express my take on the film without discussing the plot and its interpretation, so if you do not want spoilers, just know that I enjoyed the film, but also thought it went off the rails in its last act.
On the surface, Mother! is the story of a young wife, billed as mother (Jennifer Lawrence), and her much older husband, billed as Him (Javier Bardem), who live basically peacefully in a big, remote house as the wife transforms it into a paradise and the husband, a famous poet, struggles to write. Their life is disrupted by the sudden arrival of a man (Ed Harris), and later his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson). The family brings their many problems with them, introducing chaos and destruction to the house. Now, in this story, imagine that the wife is Mother Nature, the husband is God, and the family is humanity. The house is Earth. The story thus unfolds as an allegory about the relationship between God, humans, and the planet, from the perspective of Mother Nature. It doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable for that dynamic to start to look like a horror movie.
The first two thirds of the film are often lovely, mysterious, and tense, but not outright horrible. Riffing on Old Testament stories, the characters reflect on love, marriage, motherhood, creativity and grief. I most enjoyed the development of the relationships between mother and the house and mother and Him. Her creative energies are not as lauded as His, but they are a driving force in the story and their relationship. Her love for Him and for their home is all-consuming, creating anxiety for her and tension in the story as she wants their terrible houseguests to leave, but He loves them and wants them to stay, despite their bad behavior. This dramatic tension makes the allegory clearest.
It is key as the film unfolds that the story follows the perspective of the mother. Aronofsky makes this perspective clear using camera angles that follow the mother through the house, mixed with reaction shots that capture her emotional turmoil. The near exclusive use of tight angles creates an increasingly claustrophobic tone as the story progresses. What starts as intimate and homey turns into a nightmare. As the film follows mother, it also makes her look like a Madonna from a painting. The use of soft styling amps up the portrait of mother as an ethereal, loving heart to the home, enhancing the film’s themes.
As fascinating and well-crafted as I found the beginning of Mother!, it is important to remember that it is still a horror story and when it goes in that direction, it goes off the deep end. The last half hour of Mother! is violent and gory, and sure to make many people upset. My biggest issue with how the narrative unfolds is that Aronofsky wedges Jesus into the picture. I suspect that part is what will anger many. I just thought it was unnecessary and did not make sense for the allegory he established. Mother and Him make a baby who, in a gory moment, becomes a centerpiece for a critique of violence born of religion. Jesus, however, is not the son of God and Mother Nature. Using the very texts Aronofsky draws from, he is the son of God and woman; that is an important distinction if the film’s central conflict is humans vs nature. I thought the whole sequence muddled an allegory that to that point I had found solid and fascinating. Aronofsky had also included enough religious imagery that I do not think the infanticide was necessary for the critique he made.
That pretty major issue aside, I think Mother! is as beautiful as it is horrible. The acting is intense. The cinematography is captivating. The story provides plenty to chew on and prompts reflection about the impact humans have on nature, as well as the relationship between humanity, God, and the planet. In the end, it’s a hot mess, but an interesting conversation piece. 4 of 5 stars.
Mother! was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. It runs 2 hours and 1 minute and is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.
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