A movie review of
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
(Paramount Pictures, 2017)
The idea of movie “spoilers” doesn’t really apply to writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s new film Mother! The studio’s marketing campaign was careful not to reveal anything about the plot or characters but suggested that the movie was a psychological horror/thriller in the mode of the 1960s classic Rosemary’s Baby and Aronofsky’s own 2010 surprise hit Black Swan. But most people who saw the movie “unspoiled” on opening weekend actually hated it.
Let us then dispense with spoiler warnings and divulge right away that, while it does end in an over-the-top, blood-drenched, and exaggeratedly violent climax, it is not really a horror movie. It is neither scary nor even nearly as intense and difficult to watch as the ending of Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Like a Tarantino movie, the violence in Mother! is so exaggerated and preposterous that it is probably meant to be comic — as perhaps indicated by the campy exclamation point in the title.
Environmentalist Allegory. So Mother! is the very darkest sort of “dark comedy” along the lines of Fight Club or American Psycho, which satirize American masculinity by magnifying it to absurd extremes. But the film is also obviously an allegory as well. As long as we’ve given up on spoiler warnings, let’s admit that the “Mother” of the film’s title (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is “Mother Nature.” Yes, this a long way from a typical Hollywood movie. Aronofsky isn’t even trying to give us believable characters or an understandable plot. The characters have names like “Mother,” “Him,” “Man,” and “Woman,” and the plot has the logic of a dream.
Just as Animal Farm is not really a story about pigs taking over a farm (it is about the Russian revolution), so Mother! is not really a story about a poet and his young wife/muse living in an isolated farmhouse and dealing with unexpected houseguests. Besides the sheer humorous absurdity of the increasingly outlandish events, the fun of the movie is found in trying to decipher the allegorical meaning. At first, I thought it was going to be about the creative process. It starts with a self-obsessed poet (played by Javier Bardem) whose past success and overenthusiastic fans become a distraction that feeds his writer’s block. In the first half hour, the movie seems like a sort of confession, Aronofsky’s critique of himself as an artist obsessed with public approval who is yet unable to receive love from his wife. But this storyline is just the surface. It quickly becomes clear that there are biblical parallels here. On one reading, Mother! is a remake of Aronofsky’s 2014 environmentalist parable Noah but from the point of view of Mother Nature.
Biblical Symbolism. The poet is God. His house is the world, which Mother Nature is trying to build into what she explicitly calls “a paradise” (or Eden). Then along comes a “Man” (or “Adam” in Hebrew). He has a wound on his side (where apparently a rib was removed), and the next day, the Man’s wife appears. The poet loves the two people, and they are big “fans” of his work. He goes for long walks with them and relishes the praise they lavish on him. The only thing he asks is that they not enter his study (a place of forbidden knowledge), though of course they do, and they end up accidentally breaking a precious gem too beautiful to be left unhandled (a forbidden fruit). Where the gem falls to the floor, a bloodstain appears and begins to rot the floorboards (like the stain of original sin).
The Man and Woman’s two sons soon arrive and bring with them family drama, which culminates in one killing the other (like Cain and Abel). More and more people show up, and eventually, despite Mother’s repeated warnings, they break the plumbing, and the house is flooded (as in Noah’s Flood). You get the idea. Aronofsky is retelling the story of human history, using the biblical narrative. He goes all the way through the coming of Christ to the end of the world.
As more and more uninvited houseguests show up, they begin recklessly destroying part of the house, and Aronofsky’s environmentalist theme comes into view. When Mother complains about what they are doing to “my house,” they reply that “the poet says it is everyone’s house” and that they are to “share” it, reflecting the traditional Christian idea that God gave the Earth to humanity (Gen. 1:28). We see disagreements arise as groups of people attempt to steal the original copy of the poet’s writings and claim it as their own, giving birth to various religions. One group has a vaguely Jewish ritual, another a Catholic one. Eventually war breaks out between the groups, complete with guns and bombs — all within the house! When Mother finally gives birth to her own son, the people steal him away from her and accidentally kill him. The poet suggests that they forgive the people, but Mother has had enough and burns down the house, killing everyone except the poet, who begins creation again out of the ashes.
Deconstructing Aronofsky. Mother! is told from Mother Nature’s perspective, but I don’t think we’re meant to completely agree with her character. She laments that her unconditional love and approval is “not enough” for her husband. She just wants to have a family, but he is too distracted by his work to ever make love to her. But stop and think about what this means in terms of the allegory. If the poet’s fans represent the human race, then it seems like we’re meant to imagine Mother Nature lamenting the creation of humanity because she feels like she’s not enough for God. The suggestion seems to be that if the Earth were enough for God apart from any human inhabitants, then God wouldn’t have felt the need to create humanity, and we wouldn’t be around to destroy the environment. But this doesn’t make sense. If God didn’t feel the need to create, then Mother Earth wouldn’t have any children, either.
Thus the movie calls for a kind of deconstruction. Mother! imagines humanity as an outside force, something that invades and corrupts nature but is not part of nature. But why assume that? If instead we assume that humanity is part of nature — that the people in the film are not “houseguests” but are family members who are part of the household — then we avoid the temptation to burn down the house just to get rid of them. (This is the same temptation, by the way, that Aronofsky explored in his previous film where Noah plans to intentionally destroy all of humanity in order to save the environment.)
The Bible portrays God as creating the first human being by “breathing” life into the “dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). So, allegorically speaking, we should see the Man and the Woman as the “children” of God and Mother Earth (the “dust”), not outsiders who show up from elsewhere, as in Mother! Thus the movie itself contains a hidden critique of Aronofsky’s picture of God as self-obsessed and humanity as an intruder in nature. —John McAteer
John McAteer is associate professor at Ashford University where he serves as the chair of the liberal arts program. Before receiving his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, he earned a BA in film from Biola University and an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology.