Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is the kind of masterpiece filmmaking that doesn’t come along too often in contemporary American cinema. mother! is the kind of movie that would be much more comfortable in the avant-garde period of the 70s, where movies weren’t market tested half to death and modified to appeal to the widest viewership possible, but it tells a story that is extremely pressing and relevant to today. Featuring expert storytelling, precise and thought-provoking allegory, and expert performances by its cast, mother! is a movie that will stick in any viewer’s head (for different reasons) long after the credits roll.
In an age where 4K HDR is all the rage, mother! is presented on grainy 16 mm film. It is earthy and fuzzy and gritty in all the right ways. Aronofsky’s shots are tight and repetitive, creating a sense of anxiety long before the movie kicks into high gear. He is at the top of his craft in the ways in which he increases tension and delivers his signature moments of frightening imagery. All of mother!‘s actors and actresses deliver amazing performances. This is the best performance of Jennifer Lawrence’s career. She is subtle and nuanced in her delivery, and her range is downright incredible. Javier Bardem is just as fantastic in how he grabs on to his role and never lets go. Even better, Aronofsky fills even the smallest roles with excellent actors and actresses, so the film is constantly delivering one engaging performance after the other. When you strip the film entirely of its story or message, you are left with some very solid performances. It’s when the message comes in that things become controversial.
There has been a lot of recent coverage on the message of mother!… both positive and negative. While the positive reviews reacted to the storytelling, the negative ones tended to be more personal and visceral of a reaction. Aronofsky’s work often evokes that kind of response from viewers, but this time the response seemed more immature and angry than usual. I believe this is because mother! is an allegory, and viewers aren’t used to this storytelling device in modern film. Allegory is more often found in classic literature or in older films made during the time before Cinemascore and the all-important opening weekend. If you walk in to see it without an understanding that you will spend your time in the theater making connections to the Bible and classic mythology, I could understand you might be frustrated by the plot which exists on the surface of the movie.
With that said, the allegorical template for the film is caked on pretty hard at the start. Aronofsky’s progression of the first twenty minutes paints such a clear picture of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, that frankly, it’s tough to miss. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence live in a beautiful, earthy old home in the countryside, alone, until Ed Harris shows up unexpectedly and spends the night. Lawrence walks in on the two guys in the bathroom, and Bardem quickly covers a rib-length wound on Harris’ side. The next morning, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. The first allegorical story is overt and explicit to set the stage for the film. If you know your Bible stories, you can pretty much predict the rest of the picture as it unfolds. By the time we see the home decorator’s equivalent of the great flood, we know that the first place to look to for clues is surely the Old Testament. Where Aronofsky’s expertise comes in is when he begins to dial back the obviousness of the allegorical connections later in the film. I’ve spent hours so far contemplating the significance of the toad, the mysteries of the yellow elixir, and the nature of Kristen Wiig’s often-unseen character.
It’s important to note that, unlike Black Swan, this is not a movie about a woman on the verge of a breakdown. This is not a movie that wildly veers off-track in the final thirty minutes. The track existed thousands of years before mother!; it is based on some of the oldest stories ever told. Joseph Campbell laid the foundation for the academic study of mythology as a means for studying storytelling, culture and human nature. As a writer, professor, world traveler, Campbell coined the term, “monomyth,” a name for the idea that, despite various regions, cultures, climates, time periods, etc., all mythology contains similar motifs and tells a universal story. Myths from all over the world contain a mother goddess, a great flood, a cyclical nature of the world and universe. Those motifs have mean different things to different people at different times; but they are a part of our DNA as a human species.
Aronofsky largely focuses on the stories of the Bible, but some of his storytelling speaks to much older myths. The film depicts a cyclical, continuously reoccurring storyline, where the world is born, tested, destroyed, and reborn on a continuous cycle… similar to the Norse creation story’s insistence on also establishing Ragnarok. However, mother! is most explicitly about the replacement of the mother goddess, a motif found in nearly all recorded mythology since “Enuma Elish,” the Babylonian creation story that is the oldest of its kind. The world’s oldest mythology almost always featured a mother goddess as the creator and giver of fertility and life. Ancient, societies whose dependence on earth meant life or death, viewed their creators and providers as female. It wasn’t until societies began conquering each other that male gods of war became more popular mythological tropes. Sometimes the goddess was replaced in myths by literally being destroyed by the male gods. Others were replaced by being essentially written out of the stories as they were told and retold. As society became patriarchal, so did the myths. In mother!, the goddess is younger than the older, more experienced, domineering poet of a god. She breathes life into the house, the symbol for mother earth itself, but she has little control over her fate in the cycle of fertility. Although she lashes out and ultimately causes catastrophes of water and fire, the story has been predetermined due to the cyclical nature of the universe of the film (and the myths from which it draws inspiration).
Lawrence’s character is patient, pleasant and positive at the start of the film when she walks the halls in earth-toned wardrobe and tends to the needs of the house, her husband, and her guests. She is accommodating to a fault, until the guests begin to take their toll on her. The connections between the character and mother earth are so explicit that it’s baffling that people are reading the film in any other way. Aronofsky hasn’t even hid the fact that this was his intention all along. He’s spoken at length about his purpose and inspirations on several occasions. While it’s kind of sad that a director needs to do this in this day and age (Stanley Kubrick never would have been expected to explain his metaphors, and even eight years ago Quentin Tarantino refused to explain his intentional misspelling of Inglourious Basterds), the fact that we know what story the film follows should set our focus on evaluating how he shapes that explicit allegory. I would argue that the results are pretty darn fantastic. When the film explodes into mayhem in the final thirty minutes, we know we’re witnessing Armageddon (an event that she literally tells her husband she was going to begin working on in a previous scene). And it makes sense. The guests of the house have been disrespectful to her for far too long. They take and take and take without giving. They destroy without regard. But Bardem (the film’s stand-in for God) can’t stay angry with them for too long. He is moved by their dependence on him and he is inspired by the passion play of their life stories… so moved that he can’t see (or doesn’t care about) the toll it’s taking on his mother goddess. When she is finally replaced and the cycle repeats, he seems to be filled with passion and excitement over the rebirth built out of her ashes.
Aronofsky’s view of man in this allegory is obviously pessimistic. The scenery is beautiful and inviting at the beginning, and the film is filled with ambient sounds of spring winds through lush trees and delicate chimes. As guests crowd the house, the shots get more and more congested and the noise gets louder and incoherent.We see some of the guests attempt to imitate Bardem’s words and actions with obvious slanted faults. They are unable to respect the boundaries of the house (the metaphorical earth), and the flashing cameras and thefts indicate their fixation on themselves. We see scenes of war, famine, plague, and all of the other disgusting elements of humanity. They rip the house apart, stick by stick, and ultimately turn their acts of violence towards the mother goddess herself.
Human beings destroying the earth for personal gain with no regard… sound familiar? Aronofsky had this to say about mother! a week before the premiere:
“It is a mad time to be alive. As the world population nears 8 billion we face issues too serious to fathom: ecosystems collapse as we witness extinction at an unprecedented rate; migrant crises disrupt governments; a seemingly schizophrenic US helps broker a landmark climate treaty and months later withdraws; ancient tribal disputes and beliefs continue to drive war and division; the largest iceberg ever recorded breaks off an Antarctic ice shelf and drifts out to sea. At the same time we face issues too ridiculous to comprehend: in South America, tourists twice kill rare baby dolphins that washed ashore, suffocating them in a frenzy of selfies; politics resembles sporting events; people still starve to death while others can order any meat they desire. As a species our footprint is perilously unsustainable yet we live in a state of denial about the outlook for our planet and our place on it.”
The message of mother! is clear: we need to treat mother earth better if we expect her to continue to provide. Interestingly enough, in this day and age it may be more controversial to some populations to suggest that mother! is an allegory for global warming than to suggest that its an allegory for man’s role in the catastrophes of our most ancient religious stories.
It’s unfortunate that its message will largely be missed by audiences who walked out thinking either of those things. The audiences who gave the film a rare Cinemascore of “F” and the small group of professional critics who called the film pretentious and attacked its director, likely had such a reaction because they didn’t know they were supposed to be looking at the film in allegorical terms and the extremely obvious Adam and Eve segment flew over their heads. The result was a reaction that is eerily similar to the confused and disgruntled masses in the final act of the film. There was also much ado about the violence in the film. In fact, my viewing partner was concerned about seeing it in the theater because of the backlash. In reality, I found the violence to be less explicit than anything on shows like American Horror Story, and I didn’t find it to be any more intense than Aronofsky’s other works. I don’t want to downplay the violence because it’s definitely there and it will definitely be challenging to sensitive viewers. But Aronofsky doesn’t use the violence to shock or offend, and it’s often more implied than explicitly shown. The violence acts as direct metaphors in Aronofsky’s allegory, and to tone them down would be to downplay the extent of the source stories and the message of the film itself. My guess is that folks who had a bad experience with the movie had exaggerated memories of the use of violence as a result of their negative experience. To make matters even more peculiar, mother! has a streak of dark comedy to it that many critics also refuse to acknowledge. Ed Harris bumbles his way into the house and its owners’ lives with such exaggerated mannerisms that I couldn’t help but laugh when he leans over and sticks his face into the gas stove to light the cigarette hanging out of his mouth. But obviously, that kind of humor is going to be harder to pick up on if the audience is already frustrated by their perceived inaccessibility of the film’s plot.
Because of these factors, mother! is absolutely not for everyone; but it is required viewing for those who consider themselves serious admirers of film. It is the kind of movie that might be best viewed at home without the expectations of a cookie-cutter product at the multiplex on a Friday night, and new viewers will likely discover it and better appreciate it on the home video format. mother! would benefit from a Criterion-style release with educational supplemental features that explain some of the source mythology… maybe even an old Joseph Campbell interview or two. But make no mistake: this movie will not fade away despite its box office earnings. mother! is so beautifully made and powerfully delivered that it will be rediscovered by film schools and fans of director-driven cinema for years to come.