Some films are made to be crowd-pleasers, to garner critical acclaim and find their place in the hearts of audiences everywhere. Mother! the newest film from director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Black Swan) is not one of them. There’s an element of truth in the fact that once an artist releases their work into the world, it stops being their own; Instead becoming the possession of the public, who can evaluate or critique it as they see fit. With Mother! however, it might be worth considering that any disgust, anger or fury directed its way might have been the reaction its director was hoping for.
The world of this movie is an insular, small one. From the raging flames of the first shot, we witness the rebirth of a house at the hands of Javier Bardem’s character, known simply as ‘Him’. Colours of black and grey turn to pale white and cream, and a peaceful haven springs from the ashes. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Mother, pads innocently and lovingly around; painting, plastering, re-shuffling furniture and crafting a home for both her and her husband. Not only does the film never venture outside of this house, the camera rarely leaves her silhouette, claustrophobically peering over her shoulder. We become her and feel her experiences first-hand.
And feel those experiences, we do. Bardem plays the role of God in the film, and gives enough weight and presence for us to make sense of Mother’s devotion to him, but also plays the role with an airy, emotional distance – he pushes Mother away through his dedication to his work, his ultimate masterpiece and his point of real pride, mankind itself. With every bruising rebuff of Mother, we see the house, which is intrinsically linked to her very being; Its heart opening up and cracking with pain.
It’s not easy to watch your own faults and flaws played out on screen in front of you, but that’s exactly what Aronofsky intends for the audience to suffer through as the chaos of the second act unfolds. As guests begin to arrive at the house (a lone male first – Adam. We are given a brief glimpse of the wound by his rib, followed by the arrival of Eve a day later), they repeatedly abuse and take advantage of the hospitality grudgingly given to them by Mother, yet worship and remain constantly in awe of Him, their creator– whose book ‘changed their life’. Constantly referring to Mother as the ‘inspiration’ behind his work, we feel her being pushed into a place of subjectivity, with no agency or ability to control the situation unfurling around her. As further guests gather, the true horror is realised – the antagonist in the film isn’t some demonic presence, a comfortably unexplainable or intangible evil. It’s us. Just as we watch the destruction of the house – the physical manifestation of Mother Nature – and the cruelty inflicted on Mother herself, we are reminded that we’re wrecking our own home, our Earth, invading, purging and thieving its resources.
I think part of the discourse we’re now having about ‘Mother!’ needs to involve consideration of the intent Aronofsky, Lawrence, Bardem and cinematographer Matthew Libatique had to make us feel the way we do about it. Those who leave theatres professing their hatred for this film are expressing probably the most natural and human reaction possible. From the lingering claustrophobia of the camera to the slow and meticulous way we experience each horror unfold in the same manner Mother does to the fact that, at the end of it all, we’re able to completely define the movie’s true villain – you’d be right to walk out infuriated, maddened and distinctly uncomfortable.
Regardless of Aronofsky’s portrayal of the themes of religion and God, it seems that the main message he has to tell us in ‘Mother!’ is that whatever humans seem to come into contact with, they consume for their own needs, and consequently destroy. That’s not an easy idea to stomach. The initially careful and cautious rollercoaster ride we’ve been taken on crumbles away at our feet into madness and chaos, with the only true sticking point being that this was all our own doing. It’s infuriating.
What this intention, however frustrating, is smart on Aronofsky’s part. A film which can be viewed entirely as a living, breathing metaphor, or alternately entirely at face value. It demands to be thought about and given the time to grow, and expand, after a first watch. It doesn’t need to ask to be viewed a second time, because at that point, you’ll already want to.
By Maisie McGregor