Warning: Please see the film before you read this piece. It contains a lot of spoilers.
mother! is a film bursting with whacky, eccentric cinematic pleasures. For better or worse, it is truly unlike any big studio release of 2017. It’s bold, it’s audacious and it’s utterly bonkers – meaning it’s one heck of a ride. Darren Aronofsky has made a horror movie rich in mood, sonic landscapes, subjectivity and visual insanity. It’s a hot, messy (and surprisingly funny) concoction of psychological horror, religious allegory, Gnosticism, domesticity, gender dynamics, celebrityism and artistic creation. There’s a little bit of late-60s Polanski, a dash of Luis Buñuel, a smidgeon of Edward Albee, and a healthy dose of Lars Von Trier (particularly his film Antichrist, another horror movie about an unnamed married couple living in the Garden of Eden and grieving over the death of a child). At its most basic level, it’s a film about the eternal conflict between God (or “Him”, as played by Javier Bardem) and Mother Earth (or “mother”, as played by Jennifer Lawrence), and how the careless arrogance of God’s creations do nothing but disrupt and destroy Mother Earth’s beloved terrain – humans are the worst, aren’t they?
This biblical parable is by far the most common interpretation of the film. And it’s likely the most deliberate. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the forbidden fruit, the Fall of Man, the great flood, the saviour, The Book of Revelations – it’s all there (though not very subtly). But, whether intentional or not, it is by no means the only thing the film has to offer. It is as much about the act of creation as it is about the iniquitous ways in which women are belittled in marriage by men who see them principally – if not exclusively – as their muse. However, whether the film is actually successful at any of these attempts is another matter entirely. I’m still unsure how I feel about certain aspects of it. I respect its courage and I appreciate its daring, almost impudent, ambition (even if, for my taste, the film does become a bit too literal on occasion). However, it must be said that the cruelty inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence can be hard to stomach at times given the lack of acuity her character ought to have to justify such suffering – but, then again, that may well be the point.
The film has proved to be incredibly divisive among audiences and critics, incensing many viewers repulsed by its brutality. This is understandable considering the content. But I do think many of these claims are overblown. As I exited the theatre after the screening, a couple behind me said, “Well that was fucking terrible.” “Wasn’t it? Dear God, what a cruel film.” This sort of criticism – which I’ve also read elsewhere from other reviewers – seems a bit odd. Declaring to God how cruel you found a biblical allegory to be is incredibly ironic to anyone who’s ever read the Bible, one of the cruellest things anyone has ever written – a text so cruel it makes American Psycho look like YA fiction. The Bible is absolutely littered with appalling violence, genocide, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and a million other things far “crueller” than anything witnessed in mother! Honestly, if you want extremely violent, messy, batshit-crazy stories, then look no further than The Good Book.
I have to confess, however, that for about half the film much of the Bible stuff went over my head. It wasn’t until Domhnall Gleeson turned up and murdered his brother that it all began to click for me. But, up until then, I was under the assumption that the film was – among a few other things – a scathing critique of the pitfalls of modern fan culture and society’s obsession with celebrity. Fandom these days often involves more than just loving an artist; it’s about wanting to meet them, cherish them, stalk them, and ultimately worship them. But, as we’ve seen from some DC fanboys, Ghostbusters nerds, Marvel diehards – even Harry Potter lovers – things can turn ugly very quickly. Often fans nowadays want more than just owning a piece of art. They want everyone to know they own it – including the creator. Or, as one character says to mother as he’s destroying the wall of her house, “I want people to know I was here.”
mother! can be chilling and genuinely creepy at times, but it can also be perversely humorous – especially towards its insane third act. At first I was convinced I was laughing at the film. But when Kristin Wiig shows up as Javier Bardem’s zany publicist you know Aronofsky is in on the joke – he has to be. There’s no way a filmmaker would deliberately cast Kristin Wiig – the face of Bridesmaids, the face of SNL, the face of modern movie comedy – in a role that’s ostensibly a cameo without the intention of going for laughs. Seeing Wiig stroll around the room with a handgun murdering people execution-style is the moment you know Aronofsky is fucking with us.
In its approach to horror, the film is cleverer than many are giving it credit for. Horror is so often full of women brought to the edge of insanity or death; women convinced that they are either losing their mind or losing their life – or even both. But we, the audience, can’t look away. We perversely watch as these women teeter close to the end of madness and then get an enormous thrill when they eventually fall. It’s the basis of so much of horror cinema; it’s how the genre effectively works. It’s cathartic on one level, but it’s also rather sadistic on the other. We actually enjoy watching others suffer. It’s a horrible thought. But it’s true.
mother! is a clear member of the “let’s terrorise a woman” genre, but it’s also a perverted study in provocation, asking of its audience how much it is willing to tolerate seeing a heroine made to suffer so horribly – emotionally and physically. The fact that this heroine is Jennifer Lawrence also adds another fascinating angle. The sickening image of people beating her, abusing her, and tearing away her clothes is a difficult one to watch, but the implications are powerful – essentially because this is what the internet did to Jennifer Lawrence in real life merely a few years ago.
On the face of it, Lawrence’s “mother” is the type of hackneyed character that crops up in hundreds of movies. She’s the tired cliché of a young ingénue to an older, more mature, genius – she’s his inspiration, his muse. He’s supposed to know more about the world and the people in it than she does, and, by turn, he’s supposed to know more about the people staying in their home and invading their space. She, on the other hand, never once steps outside into the world.
Yet, every other film featuring this type of character sees her as disposable, someone who is quickly and inevitably brushed aside for the purposes of concentrating on the older male. She belongs in the background; a mere afterthought. In mother! though, this character is front and centre. The afterthought becomes the protagonist. The background becomes the foreground. And we’re the ones who can’t help but sympathise with her position: a woman destined for nothing other than tending to her home and taking care of her man; constantly renovating, repairing and restoring but never finding anyone willing to do the same for her.
After a certain point, Lawrence’s character is never thanked for any of the hospitality she provides for her guests. In fact, she is consistently met with scorn, derision, harassment and bullying. Yet her husband is treated like a saint, forever having adulation heaped upon him despite displaying zero hosting skills. Mother is the one that does all the cooking. She’s the one that makes the guests’ beds. She’s the one that helps them with their laundry. She’s the one that decorates the house. She’s the one that mends the house. She’s the one that built the house. And she’s the one – the only one, in fact – who spends every single second of the film inside that very house. Therefore it’s as much her house as it is anyone else’s. Yet everyone treats her like dirt inside it. Infantile people constantly ignore her modest requests (“Please get down from that sink, it hasn’t been braced yet”) and then expect her – and only her – to clean up the mess they’ve made. Surely this is as good an exploration of motherhood as any film in recent memory.
What makes mother! so unsettling is not the blood or the gore or the mounds of burning flesh, it’s the social horror of having continued hassle piled upon Lawrence by total strangers – strangers snarky and mean that consistently (and bewilderingly) act like she’s the one being unreasonable. It’s exhausting. But, as always with these sorts of domestic expectations, if the lady doth protest too much, there’ll be hell to pay.