Who here can say they knew what they were getting into when they went to see mother!? Maybe you went to see it after it premiered, and after you saw that polarizing responses to it, the mystification and adoration and all of the outright vitriol. The sheer variety of opinions about it is fascinating, and drew a few friends to it, but I went with Tommy the Thursday before its wide release debut, drawn as we were by the savvy marketing. Horror aficionados that we are, we had no idea what the plot could even be but were drawn by the sheer spectacle that the trailers were promising us. Don’t the trailers make it look like a home invasion thriller, where Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer invade the home of this couple living in the middle of nowhere to use them for some satanic ritual? Doesn’t it also look like Javier Bardem may be in on the joke, and that everything seems to be putting Jennifer Lawrence in peril? The Rosemary’s Babyillusions in the marketing certainly give that impression, and I know more than a few people who expected to see Cult Leader Michelle Pfeiffer, going full Ruth Gordon on this nonsense. What we ended up getting is much messier, much weirder, much more abrasive. I’m going to write this out as though you, too, have seen mother!, and are eager for yet another hot take on what this whole thing is an allegory for. Yes, it’s about religion, but how exclusively is it that? How much does Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence’s preaching about what their film is about actually matter? It’s amazing that an object this blunt can be so prismatic at the same time. To paraphrase Bardem’s poet, “They all understand it, but each one is interpreting it in their own way”, and that may be the most fascinating thing mother! has going for it. mother! isn’t kind to its characters or its audience, but it’s spontaneous and committed to its own mad rhythm, firmly placing us in the headspace of its central character as she battles against all forms of bullying intruders. mother! is probably the film of 2017 that’s most aggressive to audience sensibilities while also offering a very vicious portrait of that same audience, as well as the figures who make these art objects we’re so ravenous for, and the people who are both idolized and nullified by their support of those figures.
The first thing we see in mother! is a young woman englufed in flames, shedding a single tear, followed by Javier Bardem putting a glass object on a pedestal, and he gleefully watches his house reform as a different young woman solidifies into being with the rest of the house. This scene carries an incredibly different context by the end of the film, but what I admire is how fully we’re experiencing the events of the film at the same pace Lawrence is from the moment she arrives onscreen. Cinematography limits itself completely to the Lawrence character’s POV while editing makes the scenes feel like they’re happening in real time, making cuts to moments even a few seconds away from where we left these characters feel somewhat jarring. You could probably count the number of shots devoid from Lawrence’s perspective on one hand, and they’re all at the beginning and ending of the film. In no time flat we’re firmly in her head, and in even quicker strokes we’re shown a straining marriage that feels as formed from thin air as this house and this woman seem to be.
If the film seems structured to put Lawrence’s character through an increasingly vicious series of confrontations and abuses, I think it’s important to establish that she isn’t exactly some blank, pliant naif. Yes, she’s initally too polite to kick out Harris and Pfeiffer once her hubby invited them to stay without her permission, but Lawrence is frankly too steely not to give this woman some kind of spine. She’s as aware as we are to the fault lines in her marriage, and it’s her silent but unmissable look that eggs Bardem into seeing who this first uninvited guest is. At every moment of this waking nightmare of a plot, Lawrence desperately fights tooth and nail to get a soul on her side, most of all the husband she palpably loves with all her being. We’re not watching ailing Mia Farrow putting up with and excusing her unbearable circumstances until pushed to her absolute limit, until the truth is staring her in the face. We’re watching a woman with much more ballast stuck with equally little agency in a world equally intent on using and abusing her. I didn’t quite believe she built her house, but I sure as shit believed these intruders better get out when she tells them too. She loves her man deeply, but you believe her ultimatums and attempts to flee once everything almost literally goes to hell. The issue here isn’t her own will but the callousness of others, and if we’re going to reduce this character to one thing, let it be her completely refusal to stand idly by while everything is snatched away by intruders when it isn’t willingly given away by her own husband.
Roughly the first two thirds of the film play as a more mundanely unsettling version of what the trailers have been promising. I doubt Ed Harris arrives more than ten minutes into the film’s run time before he starts chumming it up with Bardem. His excuse for stumbling upon them is measly, and we’re as surprised as Lawrence is by her husband’s unusual generosity towards this man. More than that, we’re wounded by his excitement in seeing a real fan and inspiration in this man when Lawrence’s only obvious goal is to help better this schlub. Harris’s character is left immensely thin by design, and I appreciate Harris himself not try to try and grab more of the film than his character necessarily deserves. By design he’s so unknowable to Lawrence and to us, but the real point of him is his relationship with Bardem. The way Bardem sparks to him, acting as though this stranger is the fount of inspiration he’s been looking for in the face of his adoring wife, winds up being an insult in itself. What else has she done beyond fix their house and tend to him however she can?
Michelle Pfeiffer’s arrival is even more bullying, in part because she seems to be the only person to interact with and interrogate Lawrence so directly, and in part because her character is the most enigmatic of the bunch. Tossing out so many questions at Lawrence while changing moods on a dime and very openly inebriated, Pfeiffer’s is in some ways the most personal of the many invasive forces that enter Lawrence’s home. Hers isn’t just the strongest personality but the one that most registers as a person, someone who could exist beyond the clockwork madness of this little yet infinite home. There’s something mournful in her goading of Lawrence into motherhood, and you wonder in that last, enigmatically unsettling close up what Pfeiffer saw in her. Hell, the character suggested such a forceful personality and shrewd awareness of her surroundings I almost wondered if she was somehow outside of the ouroboros narrative engulfing the film and it’s lead characters, her farewell stare packed with the knowledge that, for one reason or another, they’d never see each other again. If she’s meant to be Eve, as so many reviews suggest she is, then it’s a deeply more complicated characterization than I could’ve expected for someone taking on that moniker in such a bluntly Biblical film.
Aronofsky is able to keep throwing his leading lady and the audience for a curve with the sheer scale of the disrespect these home invaders can throw at her. A messy, unclean kitchen and a filled-up ashtray are enough to set us off, never mind the truly unreal spectacle of a mysterious wound on the Harris character’s back and a fleshy, pink, tendriled-and-spiked thing that nearly pops out of a toilet before flying down the pipes, never to be seen again. Still, the waking dream atmosphere the film cultivates so succinctly is even better evoked by the arrival of the couple’s warring sons, and the makeshift wake for one of them only hours later that seems to have an ever-growing string of mourners to set upon and ruin her home. The inevitable fate of an unraised sink generates as much surreal anger and disbelief as the continuous and inexplicable disrespect that occurs whenever Lawrence tries to assert herself in her own home. A couple making out in her bedroom assert they won’t take long and eventually scoff when she says it’s hers; apropos of nothing, that same couple paints part of her house; another man repeatedly tries to get her number and hurls gendered insults when she tells him to go away for about the fifth time; another couple asks which way they should go to get down the stairs after being told to stay on the ground floor. Over and over, until that sink is destroyed, Lawrence is practically an unwanted and ignored presence in her own home. It’s not as though this act of destruction gives her any authority – the whole party flees because of the broken pipes, not because of her – and we’re left with just her and her useless husband to hash things out. Her attempts to stand up for herself are met with the “Life isn’t fair” card, which she hurls back in his face. The next morning, she’s pregnant, and he’s writing his magnum opus.
All of this sets the table for yet in no way prepares us for the absolute onslaught that begins once he publishes his poem nine months later. Looking as though she could give birth at any moment, Lawrence celebrates with a lavish dinner she prepared herself, insisting even now that she take care of him on this special night. Offers to help her are denied and then tentatively accepted, giving him a nothing task he immediately fails to complete as the house is set upon by paparazzi. She pleads for him to come back inside as he cannot help but feed this begging crowd with his presence as people start popping up in their house despite the locked doors and windows meant to stave off the world from entering. She tries to leave, but is barred from exiting as fans literally rip apart every piece of her house that isn’t being converted into an altar for The Poet. “Share, as The Poet says.” cries a woman as she interrupts Lawrence’s call to the police, only to huff at how rude people can be when a young man rips the phone off the wall. The outside world feels infinite as people come to steal whatever they can from the house, wanting a piece of their beloved Poet’s home as proof they met him, with his full permission, and ignoring the wails of his wife that they are not welcome.
From here, things only get worse. A line to receive psalms becomes part of a rave becomes part of a fight as police burst through the windows, shoving Lawrence heaving belly-first into a wall; a once-welcoming figure executes six people and commanding the death of Lawrence before they too are blown up; a policeman is set on fire while segments of the house seem to be taken over by Russian gangsters. The communal murder and cannibalism done to a crucial character leads to the most cathartic stabbings in film history, followed by one of its most ugly beatings, and a plea for forgiveness so pathetic and impossible the entire audience rebelled against it both times I watched it. Absolute destruction by fire is met with an act of complete (re)creation that seems vile and abusive in itself. mother! ends by repeating its first shots with one key change that implies not just impeding repetition, but a kind of actual hell that its protagonists live in and only one actually knows about. The film’s last half hour is somehow even blunter in its religious symbolism than it had previously been, doubling down in its ideological and narrative commitments.
So what does it say about this film that its tactics for evoking these ideas, and all its abuse to both its central character and the audience, have been treated with such a polarized response? I haven’t seen with anyone who was happy they saw it, and my own initial response was sheer anger on behalf of how Lawrence had been treated. I haven’t seen a contemporaneous film be that brutal to a central character or a female character in the ways that mother! is, and even pictures like Elle grant its heroine so much agency, intelligence, and perversity that we at least believe she knows what she’s doing by throwing herself into such murky waters. The whole point of the piece is Lawrence’s lack of agency or authority, the way she’s forced into the role of a spectator as her own life is torn apart. mother! is structured as an escalating torrent of abuse against its lead, not so much until the point where she flees as the point where she starts fighting back with her own scorched earth campaign to match the injustices done to her. Because we’re so crucially in her headspace the whole time, everything she suffers feels like it’s happening to us too. I wonder if audiences would be more or less outraged if the film was outside of her headspace at any point during the film, giving us a chance to breathe even while she keeps trying to endure this shitstorm. Surely mother! would be a less powerful experience if this was allowed, and certainly one that asked less of its audience by not putting them through the ringer. For all the criticism of its brutality, what would it be without this escalation, carried out by these specific techniques? It needs this dreamlike, vicious intimacy between Lawrence and the camera, and putting distance between us and her only seems more abusive if these acts against her are something to be studied rather than something to experience with her.
But what’s it all for? That’s the question everyone is asking and debating and taking for granted. Of course it’s a Biblical allegory, but there’s a strong narrative about the used and abused wives of creative geniuses intertwined with some environmentalist overtones. Take, for instance, that Mother Earth is not actually a personified character in the Bible. Lawrence herself has no actual Biblical equivalent despite the pressure from Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence herself that this is an environmentalist allegory embalmed in Old Testament bru-ha-ha. Pardon me for finding the urging by the creators that no, our story is only about this to be wanting, and a little dull. Maybe the narrative I’m choosing to latch on to is simply the one I’m most personally fascinated by, even more so on a metatextual sense, but if mother! gives us anything it’s a pretty scabrous story about the ways women are revered as art objects by their husbands while simultaneous denied the rights to do or be anything that cannot serve him. Bardem values her love, but only seems to care about her in moments where she threatens their established status quo and exert more of her will than he can take care of. “You never loved me. You just loved how much I loved you.” spits Lawrence through tears and oil and fire at Bardem, giving as succinct and powerful a summary of the film’s message as a later speech about the roles of Life and Hope, if not more so. The problem in their marriage isn’t that she wasn’t enough, it’s that she was more than this windbag could handle or take care of.
“God is a gaslighting husband” reads the headline of one review of mother!, and that’s about the best way to sum up Bardem’s talented poet and worthless husband. Of all the characters, few though there may be, Bardem’s is the most blatantly allegorical in construction and execution. All this man has is the love of a wife he neglects, without whom the audience would have no reason to believe him a great artist. Still, even in writing this review Bardem has been the least compelling part of the film for me to try and get a grip on. The swarms of all-consuming fans, in some ways completely following his words while utterly polluting them in others, feel like a more captivating subject than he himself does. It’s not as though Lawrence’s efforts to keep him don’t feel worthwhile, but her devotion to him is simply the best thing going for him, from an audience point of view. Bardem is God, is a shitstain of a husband, is a paragon of our worst, most ravenous instincts towards celebrity, and yet these are perhaps the least arguable aspects of the film to discuss. By design he is thinly sketched, vaguely defined and impossibly finite in his narrative and symbolic value compared to everyone else, an odd combination that makes me surprised I found this much to say about him.
What does it say about Aronofsky that he wrote a film about an artist neglecting his wife for ravenous idolaters, starring an actor his exact age and an actress he began dating during filming? What does Rachel Weisz, Aronofsky’s ex-wife, think of a film that ends with this defiant wife being literally replaced by someone who appears to be even younger? What are we supposed to think about this, given that the film’s intro sequence contextualizes everything we’ve seen as not being the first time this has all happened? Who do we think suffers worse in this Purgatory, the man who fruitlessly forces himself through this cycle again and again, or the partner who never remembers it, and experiences each fresh hell as though it’s the first time? There’s no reading of mother! that isn’t deeply cynical towards its creators and the audience consuming it, that doesn’t amplify the idea that hell is other people and their worst, least considerate intentions. It can coexist as what its creators hope for as well as every interpretation of itself on the internet. I’ve heard nothing but vitriol directed at it from friends and a surprising about of split opinions online, all of which feel like proper responses to all the provocation they’ve witnessed. One friend trashed the film as utterly empty in its escalating violence and didn’t think any of it was plausible; a classmate seemed to take the religious allegory as proof in and of itself the film had something meaningful to say; a few friends were just traumatized by the imagery; Tommy immediately bought a 4Loco and cigarettes, raging against the film all night. I joined in, but stood up for the sound design and technically proficient aspects of the film, for Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance, and the wronged wife scenario. If anything, talking about it out loud has made me more sympathetic to it, so much so that I saw it again with our squad while Tommy got plastered, bragging to our disappointed crew that he made the better choice. Tommy conceded my points and positive aspects but still found the whole thing too vile to root for in any capacity, and would be very happy if the film got no Oscar nominations the morning of. I sincerely doubt that happening, even as I plan on throwing a bouquet at whichever genius was in charge of sound editing at the very least. On all levels mother! is a polarizing and divisive beast, very intentionally so. Nothing has fascinated me more than individual reactions to it, and even if reviews suggest a film you don’t have the stomach for I urge you to go. Yes, this is an unpleasant, difficult film to sit through. People left in both my audiences. Plenty of people hate it with a passion, and plenty consider it Aronofsky’s masterpiece. But no film begs you to take something, anything of value from it like this one. Examine it yourself, test your mettle. See what you’re willing to look up with, and what you can find in the tale of an ignorant man and a neglected woman. Maybe it’s about God, or Earth, or Women and Men, or all of the above. Go for yourself. mother! gives and it gives and it gives and it gives, with something standing defiantly the more viscerally it shoves its beating heart at the audience. It’s an ordeal, but even if it’s one you get nothing out of, it’s still a commanding, singular presence in a way “better” movies can’t compete with.