There is no way to properly discuss the film without getting right to the meat of the thing. This essay will spoil everything and that is something you do not want to happen. Come back after you’ve seen the film. You’ve been warned.
Darren Aronofsky has shrouded his latest film in secrecy. Very little was known about it up until the surprise trailer dropped not so long ago, and the marketing has been decidedly cryptic. Having seen the film, I believe this is secrecy is integral to properly enjoy and appreciate the paranoiac, religious nightmare he has created.
mother! is not a subtle film. It is not a puzzle box to be pondered over and taken frame by frame, looking for secret meaning. It is much more like a lock. Once you hold the key and slide it into the chamber, the secrets that seemed so closely guarded reveal themselves fully and with very little margin of error but plenty of room for interpretation.
The real trick of mother! is layering those secrets and the meaning behind them in such a way as to leave each viewer with a different take on the material. All the pieces and ideas are clearly on display once you’ve opened the lock, what hierarchy you place them in is up to you.
Aronofsky has made a film that combines the anarchic “stone in your shoe” style filmmaking of Lars von Trier, the tight and precise control of a Stanley Kubrick descent into madness, the lyrical paranoia of Roman Polanski and the pathological need to leave the audience probing the film for secrets of David Lynch while simultaneously making a film that quite possibly no other director could have made. This is to say that mother! is very much in line with my tastes. I feel this will not be the case for the majority of filmgoing audience, and quite possibly the source of a fair amount of controversy.
Aronofsky has never shied away from religion and spirituality in his films. Aronofsky’s fixation on the mysteries of the universe and attempts to rationalize it all can be seen as early as in Pi, with its idea of a cold, mathematical creation of the universe. In The Fountain, Aronofsky dives into the spiritual, musing on the decidedly warmer ideas of love, eternity, and the meaning of life. In 2014, Aronofsky’s most financially successful film, Noah, was released.
Noah was notoriously almost marred by studio interference after testing poorly with the heavily religious test audiences that Paramount felt needed to be behind the biblical epic. Going back and forth over the final cut, Aronofsky was finally victorious and his version of Noah came into existence and was met with success both financially and critically. In the final version of the film, Aronofsky’s vision, he relishes in the idea of God as paradoxically merciful and unrelentingly judgmental. This idea did not leave him after the film. In fact, the inconsistency of God’s characterization, will, and desires, as well as the diluvian flood itself all make appearances in 2017’s mother!
Despite the advertising, the title of the film, and the very obvious Rosemary’s Baby nods in the marketing, mother! is not the extended parable about motherhood it might seem to be. In many ways, it is more a story of the toxicity of self-mythologizing and the negative impact the cult of ego has on a creator and the effect it has on the people around that individual. In other ways very blatant ways, the film is quite literally about God. Aronofsky seems content to conflate the two, anyway.
mother! follows an unnamed couple, referred to in the credits simply as mother and Him, as they go about their idyllic life in Him’s childhood home. He’s a writer, a creative in a slump, unable to find the words he needs to create the next truly great work. While he toils fruitlessly at the Great Task of writing, she has spent her time carefully restoring the home, mixing paints and stucco by hand, delicately rebuilding, refinishing, and outfitting the rustic home located in a vaguely defined rural area. She is good at what she does. The home, and the cinematography used to capture it, is beautiful. A soft color palette full of muted earth tones occasionally punctuated with cool, soft blues and gentle greens. The colors of nature softened for comfort.
Things run smoothly, if seemingly without passion, until the arrival of a stranger on their doorstep in the middle of the night. Ed Harris, simply referred to as Man in the credits (a moniker that once fully examined in the afterglow of the film begins to take on much deeper meaning) turns up expecting a bed and breakfast, and is graciously welcomed into the home by Him, mother is not nearly so enthused at this stranger’s arrival. Even less so the following day when Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Man’s wife, turns up with a suitcase and foul attitude in tow.
Despite mother’s protests, Man and Woman are given free reign and generally free access to the home. Refusing to abide by the rules of the house, even exceedingly simple ones like not smoking inside or to stay out of Him’s office, they generally wreck the place up. Man and Woman go into the office, examining the large diamond that Him displays on his bookshelf, carelessly dropping it in a shared drunken stupor. Him flies into a rage, banishing them from the office, mother attempts to banish them from the home but is unable to do so. Eventually, Him forgives them, but seals his office, not even allowing Himself to enter it any longer.
Things grow even more complicated once Man and Woman’s sons show up, and grow even tenser and more upsetting once one of them kills the other in the heat of an argument. Depending on how much Sunday school you went to as a kid, this might have started to sound eerily familiar.
From this point on, there’s really no skirting around the fact that the film is, quite bluntly, a reimagining of The Bible told in the microcosm of a home. Him is The Creator, quite literally God himself. Aronofsky positions his God as an unknowable, complicated, and ultimately flawed being. He devours the sacrifices of those around him, be they literal offerings of food and drink or the emotional supplication and worship he experiences first from mother, then from Man, and finally from the throngs of hundreds or thousands that invade their home and destroy it with their bestial acts.
She, mother, seems to be an amalgamation, quite possibly the literal Mother Earth, but definitely drawing inspiration and subtextual if not textual agency from “God’s wife”, the ancient Semitic goddess Asherah a fertility goddess who is sometimes interpreted as a consort of the Abrahamic god Yahweh as well as from Lilith, a demon mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud and positioned in much of Jewish folklore as Adam’s first wife, created not from Adam’s rib as Eve was, but rather from the same dirt as Adam.
She finds herself trapped, being confronted with the consequences of decisions that are not her own, compelled to stay in the home by some unseen force. It seems to me that love and subconscious needs are positioned as being as powerful a controlling force as any deity’s will.
The story unfolds through mother’s eyes and is contextualized from her perspective completely, with much of the film shot in claustrophobic close-ups of her face while other characters move in the soft unfocused areas around her. Her husband seems foreign to her, unknowable, and inconsistent. He lies and he placates, and despite her begging Him, he consistently chooses these usurpers over her as they ignore her desires and destroy her home.
All the while these internal feelings of abandonment, of being less than, or of not being good enough begin to manifest as a bleeding wound in the floorboards. Visions of a slowly decaying, smoldering heart intersperse with the cosmos. Paranoia and rage manifesting as flashes of a burnt down house, disorienting camerawork putting the audience fully in mother’s shoes. Aranofsky’s flair for post-modern surrealism is on full display. Images are presented with no context, no clue as to their meaning. Him acts in unknowable ways. We are as in the dark about Him’s motives and desires as mother is, and as in the dark as we are about God’s plan, should He exist. This is deeply unsettling and the film oozes dread and paranoia from frame one.
The biblical narrative is as present in the text as it is in subtext and follows the old testament, with the destruction of a plumbing fixture standing in for the flood of Noah from the book of Genesis. The ever-growing crowd of people gathered to mourn the death of Man and Woman’s son finally disperse when in a fit of rage mother demands they do so and Him instructs them to leave. Mother accosts Him for choosing the throngs of mourners over her, and for lying about wanting children and the fact that he “can’t even fuck” her.
Him proves her wrong, and the next morning she wakes convinced she’s pregnant. A miracle, perhaps. Things simmer quietly for a time, Him begins to work again on his next work and the home is rebuilt, refinished, and beautiful once more. These peaceful times are not to last however because we all know how the story of God’s son goes.
The climax of the film is one for the ages, a truly swirling, chaotic miasma of joy, terror, and confusion. Once Him’s work is complete, He shares it with mother, now very pregnant. She cries while reading his beautiful words, though they are never revealed to the audience and mournfully asks whether she will lose him. They share a loving embrace as Him assuages her fear and it is then revealed that mother was not the first to be shown the text, with their reassuring embrace interrupted by phone calls from Him’s publisher.
In the wake of publication, Him finds even greater success and even more readers than before. A peaceful dinner at home to celebrate the impending birth of their child is interrupted by the arrival of yet more strangers, literal seekers in the dark armed with flashlights, descending on the rural home in seek of guidance, advice, and affirmation. What starts as a small handful quickly becomes dozens, dozens become hundreds, and soon the crowd is too large to manage.
The visitors, Mankind, once again descend on their home and soon once again fill it with chaos, but this time they do not settle for destruction through casual indifference. They begin to steal things, rip up the molding and literally destroy the couple’s home, in their words, to “prove we were here”. The home becomes covered in photographs of Him, sects emerge and begin to take out their frustrations about being left alone with no answers as Him frantically runs around the house trying to control the chaos but never banishing it, as we so readily believe him able to.
This chaos quickly turns to violence, this violence to exploitation, terrorism, murder, human trafficking, and eventually full-on religious warfare. We see Him’s publisher, referred to as The Herald in the credits executing bound men with hoods over their heads at point-blank range with pistols. We see a microcosmic version of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict playing out in the stairwell in front of Him’s office. The slow creeping dread of Aronofsky’s surrealism gives way to all-out horror as we move through a of all of mankind’s many disturbing failings in a shaky, terrifying whirlwind through their once beautiful home.
This has quickly become much too much for Him to manage, but He never tells them to leave either out of altruism or in my darker reading, one shared by mother, because He needs them to feed his ego and make him feel powerful.
Perhaps that is a cynical reading of Aronofsky’s message but the end of the film goes a long way to reassuring me I am correct.
As she goes into labor, Him returns to save mother from being sold into slavery by a group of men rounding women up into cages. Him turns a blind eye to this and whisks mother to safety in the form of a return to the boarded-up office. The only refuge from the bedlam that’s overtaken the rest of the home. Mother gives birth, and refuses to let Him hold the child. Perhaps she knows what’s coming. Perhaps she read it in his work.
This goes on for an indeterminate amount of time, as the rest of the climax has, with Him presenting mother and child with offerings from his followers/readers. Despite the living nightmare outside his door, Him still loves the unwashed masses ripping themselves to shreds just feet away. Their love for Him is more important than her’s.
She finally falls asleep and when she wakes she is horrified to find he has taken the child and offered it to the teeming host occupying their home.
This plays out in a macabre burlesque of the death of Christ and in the act of communion. The child dies, his body torn to pieces and eaten by the crowd. mother is heartbroken and furious, she lashes out at the crowd who respond in kind, beating her, tearing her clothes to pieces. Him rushes to her side, begging her to forgive them, that they must find it in their hearts to forgive the killers of their child. She has finally had enough, rising to her feet she commits to an act of rebellion, spitting in the face of the flawed creature she sees before her. This man, Him, is selfish. Everything serves his needs, his desires. The chaos and torture, the death and defilement are allowed to continue so long as they praise him and staple photos of him around the house.
Mother, like Lucifer the light-bringer or Islam’s Iblīs before her refuses to prostrate herself before these humans who have done so much harm, and so decides to end it all. She chooses to fall from grace, knowing she will die but taking the usurpers she hates so much with her, destroying what she had worked so hard for because in the end she was nothing more than a trial run for the hellish nightmare that destroyed her home, and took her son, leaving her with nothing.
He pleads with her, begs her to reconsider, but the damage is done. She has made the realization, “You never loved me, you just loved how much I loved you.” God as the narcissist, the creative as the narcissist. Fire tears through the house, destroying everything it touches. Effectively ending the world, assuming we chose to read the house as the world, in hellfire.
In the end, Him is able to begin again. In her dying moments, Him has one last request for her. She has nothing left to give, but he demands more. Bardem delivers these lines with a smile on his face. He wants her heart. She offers it to him. I wasn’t enough for you, she murmurs as her skin turns to ash. Nothing is ever good enough for you. He smiles down at her and with light in his eyes replies, “Of course not. If it was, how could I create?” Taking the last thing she had to offer, he exerts insane pressure on the blackened, coallike heart until it becomes another diamond. Demanding every last drop of love and affection from those around him he creates yet again, restoring the home to where we entered the film. A woman wakes up in bed and we hear the words that opened our story, “Baby?”, but it’s not our mother. It’s a different woman. It is happening again. It will always happen again.
Is that how Aronofsky views God? Is that how he views himself? Creativity? Is there a difference? A flawed being, capable of creating so much beauty and so much joy but also ready and willing to literally rip the hearts out of the chests of those he professes to love in the name of creating? In the name of being adored? He shows us an endless cycle of creation and failure, a nightmare for some and a dream for others.
Despite all I have laid bare here, there are those who will insist that the film is not the story I believe it to be. They will insist that it is a story of a man and a woman, and the drive to create tearing them apart. The beautiful thing is, those people are correct. It is that, it is this. It is many things to many people, infinitely relatable and worthy of thought and effort, much akin to the parables that so clearly inspired it. This a story about a woman and her husband, a poet by trade.
There is a lot to unpack from the decision to make God a writer. The obvious being the parallel between the creation of words and the creation of worlds. The cycle of creation and rest. Of doubt, and of the need to be validated. The secretive magic that is worked behind closed doors to bring words and ideas together. The insatiable need to do something great. Conversely, the most damning thing laid at God’s feet here, and at the feet of creatives everywhere, is the emotional black hole that the most selfish among them create in their wake. Despite how great the work may be, some of us are guilty of taking more than we give.
The creative is never truly satisfied. Not with the work, their critical standing, bank accounts, or their level of adoration. Aronofsky positions the creative as the equivalent of an enigmatic, needy, and vengeful God, never truly happy and always hungry for more. One could read those closing lines as positive, as Him clearly does. He interprets it as the natural state of things, with a resigned acceptance. There is no need to create if you are satisfied. Why bring something into existence if you have everything you want or need?
I am of the opinion that if you’re a creative and you didn’t like this movie very much, it might just be because you saw yourself carved in bas-relief and didn’t like the way the bumps felt against your thin skin. While I certainly hope the vast majority of us are nowhere near as toxic as the dark God presented here, I firmly believe that we need to look at ourselves in the mirror from time to time and remind ourselves that if we aren’t careful, it’s a very real possibility.
mother! is a beautifully shot nightmare with great performances by Bardem and Lawrence, a fascinating structure and some of the most strikingly surreal and horrifying images and sequences in recent memory. A film destined to be polarizing, Aranofsky has made quite possibly the most daring wide-release film of the last 20 years and is a fascinating lens through which to examine love, creativity, and God.