Mother! is the most expertly crafted film of Darren Aronofsky’s career but audiences will leave the theater revolted by its imagery.
Mother! has a seemingly harmless narrative centered around a nameless couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem who live in this beautiful Victorian home out in the middle of nowhere. Bardem is an artist who is known for his poetry, but he is unable to create. Lawrence plays the deeply devoted love of his life. While Bardem’s character trudges through each day unable to write, Lawrence’s character dedicates herself towards restoring their home to its original grandeur. Their life of peace and tranquility is shattered when a man (played by Ed Harris) shows up (he’s never given a name and is only known as “man”). We come to find out that Harris’s character is a superfan of the resident poet and hangs on his every word. Bardem’s character invites him to stay with them at the house. Shortly his wife shows up (she’s never given a name as well and is beautifully played by Michelle Pheiffer). Pheiffer’s character openly detests Bardem’s wife but positively adores Bardem. Shortly Pheiffer and Harris’ sons join them, and the insanity in the house reaches its boiling point. More and more of the poet’s fans show up and begin to want a piece of the favorite writer (even if it means destroying their home). Lawrence is about to lose it and Bardem doesn’t seem to care. He adores the attention and even begins to crave it. The fans eventually turn violent, even killing random people at their home. Rather than doing something about Bardem soaks it in and appears to be energized by their presence. He finally finds enough energy to write his masterpiece and to conceive their son. Just when we think that the worst is behind them, it gets a million times worse. The third act descends into utter chaos ending with a scene that is one of the most repulsive sequences I’ve ever witnessed in a film. Spoilers will be mentioned in the critique below.
Aronofsky’s has many themes at work in this film. For starters, he’s certainly making a profound statement on the current state of celebrity culture. Bardem’s character is adored by a throng of fans who travel miles just to be touched by the very hand that crafts his beautiful poetry. Every time he shows his kindness for their admiration the fans want more and more (ranging from things personal to things that he owns). Aronofsky’s vision of humanity in this piece is one that’s bleak.
While initially not evident, there are religious undertones in the film. Bardem’s character could be interpreted as the “creator” or some version of “god.” However, the director interpretation of god is more of a self-centered deity who is hungry for adulation. Lawrence breathes life into the house and is a metaphor for Mother Earth. The analogies would lend to Ed Harris and Michelle Pheiffer as Adam and Eve with their sons being Cain and Able. While Bardem’s character is soaking up the worship from his followers (even blessing them as they left his presence) his wife is being battered and abused by every stranger she comes in contact with (whether it is on her person or in the house that she’s brought to life). Aronofsky could also be making a statement about how we treat our environment? Where this analogy takes an unsettling turn is when Lawrence gives birth to a baby boy in the third act of the film.
Matthew Libatique does a brilliant job of capturing the beauty of their surroundings but also manages to highlight the bleakness, horror, and sheer brutality of the narrative. Libatique mixes his color palette using earthy tones around the house and during the most intense moments, dark colors mixed with a bright blood red.
What Didn’t Work
When breaking down the religious undertones, I left one major part in regards to the sequence involving Lawrence’s character and her new son. It’s safe to surmise that Aronofsky wanted audiences to equate the birth of Jesus with her son’s birth. However, rather than leaving that comparison as is, the director and writer of this piece took it one step further. There is an argument between Bardem and Lawrence about whether he can show their new son to his fans (who happen to be camped out in her house). She refuses and is disgusted by the request. This argument leads to a pseudo standoff where Lawrence attempts to stay up all night and keep her son safe. After lasting a few days, she doses off, and Bardem snatches the child. She wakes up and realizes and bears witness to the crowd going hysterical as they pass the newborn around which isn’t more than a day old. The baby then begins to shower them with urine and causes the crowd to reach a fever pitch, and one of the fans ends up breaking the baby’s neck. Just the thought of that alone made me want to vomit, but it gets worse. The crowd places the child on a makeshift altar and begin to cannibalize him. While it’s certainly obvious that he’s making a layered statement, both on our celebrity culture which often crosses the line and religious extremism, the last thirty minutes of the film was in bad taste and completely unnecessary. Aronofsky made his point well before the sequence even unfolded, but he decided to push the envelope. The third act of this film undid a lot of great things the first two-thirds accomplished.
No one denies the many positive elements of Aronofsky’s latest film. His cast gave a magnificent performance which certainly will attract the attention of voters as we head into awards season. The cinematography and writing were stellar. However, I don’t feel the general public should subject themselves to a horrific cinematic experience. If anyone would like to experience what it’s like to sit through Mother!, my suggestion is to bash your head into the nearest wall. While the effects might be a mild concussion, the trauma won’t be close to this experience this film had on me.