Directed by Darren Aronofsky (2017)
by Hunter Bush
Darren Aronofsky's latest movie, Mother! is a messy film that manages to succeed on one level while ultimately failing on another. Which level you perceive as being more important will greatly affect how you feel about it.
Mother! (and I will be using the exclamation point with the title, yes) is a difficult film to categorize in much the same way as his earlier Black Swan (2010) was upon its release. Hindsight and repeated viewings now allow Swan to be categorized as a psychological drama (with body horror elements) but I'm curious if Mother! will come to be classified as anything besides its current generic (and misleading) horror label. Going by the trailers for the movie, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a home invasion thriller. I mean it is, but that's just the start.
Javier Bardem is a poet and Jennifer Lawrence is his muse (all characters are credited archetypically; theirs are Him and mother, respectively) and they live together in an isolated and peaceful home which Lawrence has rebuilt from the literal ashes of Bardem's previous home, entirely by herself so that he can continue to write, to create. We don't get long to appreciate this quiet idyll and their easy affection for one another before a knock comes at the door. Ed Harris (credited as man) says he is new in town and was misdirected there by someone thinking the home was a bed and breakfast. The couple invite him to stay the night, during which time he and Bardem drink and he smokes (vices that Lawrence does not partake in, herself) and the next morning they are joined by Michelle Pfeiffer (woman), Harris' wife.
Harris and Pfeiffer both turn out to be fans of Bardem's work, and have taken a sort of pilgrimage to meet him under the somewhat false pretenses Harris gave the night before. They delight in prying into Bardem & Lawrence's home life, even eventually going into His second floor study and accidentally breaking a delicate gem, explained by Bardem as the only thing to survive the destruction of his previous home. They apologize profusely, like scolded children, but when Lawrence leaves Bardem painfully clutching the broken shards in his hands, she finds the pair in a carnal embrace (sex being another vice that Lawrence seems not to be partaking in).
Shortly thereafter they are all joined by man and woman's two sons (played by the real life Gleeson brothers Brian and Domhnall, but they're barely onscreen long enough for me to tell them apart) who feud over family business and before Jennifer Lawrence can catch her breath, everyone is taking one brother to the hospital while the other brother, having fled the house, is still out there somewhere. Lawrence alone is left to clean up the blood but one spot won't come up, staining the floor and almost instantly softening the wood into a wound that bleeds down into the basement, revealing a bricked over door that leads to the furnace's oil supply tank. This is where any resemblance to the usual home invasion / horror / thriller goes right out the window and you realize this movie was never going to be that.
The group return from the hospital, revealing that the badly injured son has died and of course Bardem offers to host the wake which is starting right now. Strangers come pouring into the house with nightmarish single-mindedness, ignoring Lawrence's questions and requests. Pfeiffer, who had earlier chided Lawrence for not "keeping things interesting" in the bedroom, now admonishes her for the indecency of the casual clothes she is wearing. Around when a walking example of street harassment accosts Lawrence in her own home, I gave up looking for a "key metaphor" for Mother! because there just isn't one. There are many.
This film, which Aronofsky wrote in just five days, may have begun as a story about relationships (especially ones with a creative person like him; someone who gives of their time and attention to strangers at the expense of all else) but it becomes a lot more. Lawrence isn't just a symbolic muse, or a surrogate for a lost lover, in Mother! she is all women: womanhood as concept. Their house isn't just a ruined relationship rebuilt by a new partner, it becomes a metaphor for existence itself, awash in biblical imagery of man and womankind coming to a paradise, bringing their vices and offspring, inadvertently spoiling everything. The brothers fighting are Cain & Abel, the blood spot that won't come clean is Original Sin. The wake even ends in flood imagery from a broken water pipe.
It's only after all the people are gone that Lawrence can evolve, egging Bardem on to take her to bed, which leads to a nine month return to their private Eden, during which time he feels inspired to create new work and she converts the scene of The First Murder into a nursery for their forthcoming child. But his new work of course brings new people. More people; worse people. People more disrespectful and entitled than the overwhelming mass at the wake. People more fanatical.
From here the film spirals into a complete nightmare as Lawrence is shuffled from room to room each serving as microcosms for mankind's worst acts. She is, among the myriad other archetypes, Mother Earth and if you've been paying attention to the way we humans have been treating the planet and each other and women in general, you'll have an idea of the direction the third act takes. Keep the biblical parables in mind as well. I'm not giving away any great secrets here by the way. Aronofsky wants you to know what he's talking about on an emotional level even if intellectually it's all a bit muddied, but that muddiness is where my main problem lies.
Javier Bardem is the most obvious author surrogate this side of a Stephen King novel and even though the finale of the film is an attempt at explaining this mistreatment (of those who love us / all women / the world / everything), he doesn't express any real remorse. "Nothing is ever enough" he says, "I couldn't create if it was." Which is a baffling sentiment from the man who makes sure we feel every brutal second of his symbolic muse's suffering. He is simultaneously pointing out how terrible mankind is and excusing it as essentially just the cost of doing business. The finale's failure to tie up the thematic threads satisfyingly is the biggest flaw, but overall I enjoyed Mother! because while it fails intellectually, it succeeds emotionally. I left the theater acutely conscious of people who indulge me so that I can pursue my dreams and I intend to show them that I appreciate them.
Ultimately the start of the film is almost fun as a home invasion black comedy but once the symbolism hits the fan it spirals into a fever dream of heavy-handed, ugly metaphors. Aronofsky created this world in just five days while apocryphally it took God six to make ours. Maybe an extra day wouldn't have been the worst idea.