Year of Release: 2017 Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
“God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God,” and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.” – Pope St. John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists
The question at the heart of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream heavily infused with Biblical allegories, is what happens when an artist abuses that power. Portrayed by Javier Bardem, the artist in question receives no name throughout the film, and he is clearly meant to serve as an archetype of something, but what that something is remains a mystery for much of the film. One thing that is clear throughout the film is that more than desiring to write great poetry, he longs for mass adulations from his adoring fans to the chagrin of his doting, supportive wife, the titular mother (Jennifer Lawrence).
Mother herself is another allegorical character, with touches of the Virgin Mary, Hestia, and Aphrodite, but she is primarily drawn from Gaia, or mother nature herself. Whatever combination of metaphors mother is meant to represent, Lawrence draws on them all effortlessly, creating a sympathetic character who never seems gullible or foolish for blindly going along with her husband or pouring all her energies into refurbishing their mysterious house, another process of creation and a sort of vocation that no one, including her creative genius husband, appreciates.
Aronofsky has said that his original idea for mother! was to convey a feeling of dread and helplessness as one watches their home destroyed, an allegory of mother earth’s helplessness in the face of environmental destruction. That is an easy interpretation to see, especially considering the selfless giving of mother to her husband and the increasingly disturbing string of guests he parades through their home because they love his work. At the same time, if the invasion of the home is a parallel to humans destroying the earth, it also functions as an example of a self-centered artist allowing his wife’s handiwork to be abused and destroyed because he wants all fame and glory for himself, not much different from an abusive artist trying to usurp glory from God or misuse His creation.
As the destruction to the house crescendos in increasingly disturbing ways, it is impossible not to sympathize with mother as Aronofsky builds up to the horrific finale of his disorienting thrill ride. That sense of sympathy and compassion serves as a lament in the face of evil as we watch mother’s suffering. mother! may be a horror film, but it’s a profoundly sorrowful one. If the desire for fame can give birth to the ugliest of human behavior, idolatrous religious fervor fortifies those tendencies. mother! shies away from depicting neither.
The horror of human capacity for evil is made strikingly apparent by Aronofsky’s choice to saturate this film with Biblical allegories. The ones that feature into the finale are a jarring choice considering what happens, but that dissonance emphasizes the twofold horror of the artist who thinks he is God and of the inherent idolatry of adoring fans who place their faith in works of art rather than allowing the art to remind them of something greater.
(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph, skip it if you wish to avoid them.)
The metaphorical nature of Javier Bardem’s poet has caused consternation among many Christian reviewers, and while he is certainly meant to be indicative of God the Father on some levels, he is just as much drawn from Pygmalion in Greek mythology with his doting trophy wife half his age, carefully concocted to be the ultimate fulfillment of every sexist fantasy regarding the subservient housekeeping wife whom the husband can ignore, whose existence seems due to a magical crystal he owns. He is also a highly incomplete portrait of God with his obsession of permitting people to do whatever they want provided they tell him he’s awesome. Mother is also representative of God with her sense of justice, the way she breathes life into the house, and the way she bears its burdens. If the poet represents a god where mercy has been divorced from justice, the abuse heaped upon mother results in a god where justice is divorced from mercy. Both are horrific alternatives, and the film depicts both.
It would be easy to dismiss mother! as an offensive and badly muddled allegory of religious themes, and indeed, many Christian reviewers have done just that. Furthermore, considering the damning way in which uniquely Catholic symbolism plays into the film’s climax, adding one more such condemnation to the fray would have been all too easy. However, to have done so would have been to ignore the thoughtful and complex way Aronofsky wrestles with the vocation of the artist and how that can be abused in a unique setting haunted by Biblical themes.
I believe the key to understanding mother! is to remember that it is not a straightforward allegory, but one that deliberately scrambles all its metaphors, much to the frustration of audiences. Alissa Wilkinson mentioned that Michelle Pfeiffer, in a scene stealing performance, is simultaneously an Eve and Serpent figure. That is the sort interpretation this film requires. Jacob and Esau are merged with Cain and Abel. The Nativity and the Passion are referenced almost simultaneously. And in a predictable, yet brilliant twist, Alpha and Omega symbolism bookends the film.
mother! is a grand, macabre symphony of big, bold, Mahlerian-scaled allegories that pummel the viewer through a psychological horror tale about creation, its destruction, and the artist’s vocation. The relentless pacing, disturbing and revolting plot twists, plethora of closeup shots, and the predictable yet nonetheless WTF ending all contribute to an atmosphere which will challenge even the most adventurous of viewers, causing many of them to abhor it. And for all those reasons, which create a perfect marriage of style and substance, I absolutely loved it.
Content Advisory: Disturbing graphic violence, including cannibalism, a scene of physical assault with fleeting nudity, a couple non-graphic sex scenes, a few harsh obscenities, and brief male nudity. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment
Personal Recommendation: A