mother!

Oh, symbolism. It’s a tool that every artist uses to some extent, but like any tool, it all depends on the person who uses it. When it comes to film, symbolism can be used in a multitude of ways, from representing a character’s state of mind, to making an extra commentary on the story that doesn’t exist on the surface level. Sometimes the symbolism can be vague, or have many interpretations of what it’s all trying to say. Other times, that symbolism can knock you in the face with all the subtlety of a battering ram. Does that inherently make the film bad, though? 

In mother!, mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young woman living in a gigantic mansion out in the countryside with her husband Him (Javier Bardem), a very successful author. After Him’s house burnt down and struck him with severe writer’s block, he met mother, who helped him completely rebuild his home. Suddenly, their idealistic life is disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious man (Ed Harris) and woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who Him is delighted to have over. Much to mother’s dismay and without her consent, Him invites the couple to stay in their house. Over time, more and more strangers continue to show up to the house after Him publishes a popular new book. As people continue to show up and invade mother’s house and personal space, it starts wearing down on her heart, soul, and mind. 

This is one of those films that’s difficult to talk about without really “spoiling” it. However, it’s hard to even consider it a spoiler, since the film’s intent has now been explained by Jennifer Lawrence and writer/director Darren Aronofosky in various interviews. Regardless, if you want to keep the mystery from my little plot synopsis and go see the film, I’ll just say that I absolutely loved it! Then again, this film isn’t for everybody, so my enjoyment may not be much of a recommendation for you. Eh, here we go anyway. You’ve been warned. 

SPOILERS 

mother! is all about the symbolism and it certainly gets less and less subtle as it goes on: Him is God/the Creator, mother is Mother Earth/Virgin Mary, man is Adam, woman is Eve, their sons are Cain and Abel, and so on, and so on. Your enjoyment of the film will come from how much you can stomach that it’s first and foremost a retelling of The Bible and an exploration of the themes that it entails. I’m not religious, therefore not too familiar with The Bible, so to be honest, a lot of the symbolism in the beginning was kind of lost on me. It wasn’t until later on where this film takes a very extreme shift in narrative to where I truly caught on to what was happening. The fact that some of this symbolism wasn’t obvious to me in its intent added a mystery like quality to where I was constantly trying to guess what was truly happening. It’s a true psychological horror experience as mother goes around her house, feeling like she’s losing her mind after witnessing some truly horrific imagery. 

The entire film takes place from mother’s perspective, as she witnesses more and more people infest and destroy the beautiful home she helped create. Aronofsky does an incredible job at capturing her unraveling mindset, with long tracking shots of her rushing around her house trying to keep the chaos in order, or intense, shaky close up shots that lose control when she can’t take it anymore. The sound design is especially impeccable, with little touches here and there that make the environment feel so alive. No matter where mother is in the house, you can always barely hear voices coming from the other room, or little creaks in the floorboard. It adds to this constant sense of paranoia, to whenever a knock is heard at the door, you can’t help but shudder at what’s about to happen. Who knew somebody knocking on a door could instill so much dread? The seeming lack of a score further heightened this anxiety, giving the whole film a very unnatural quality. 

You just feel so bad for mother from the opening scene. She wakes up alone, wanders around the quiet house by herself, she provides for everybody as they invade her home, never gets any thanks, nor anybody’s consent. It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s performance that really sells it. She’s just so sweet and well-meaning that you can’t help but empathize with her, especially when all she wants from people is to just respect her home. Nobody cares about the hospitality she has to offer, nor of her sweet and initially forgiving demeanor. All they care about is Him and his amazing work, and all they want to do is be close to him, although they are destroying everything around them. As the film progresses, it gets to the point where the mansion is filled with hundreds of people. First, they’re just partying, but then it leads to all out chaos with rioting, prison camps, and mass executions. During the climax, I was feeling exactly like mother; just in complete despair, never being able to escape the madness around her. It’s like a terrible nightmare that you can never wake up from. 

It’s a lot more than just a bunch of religious allegories, but plenty of human conflicts as well. This isn’t just a story to how blindly people will devote themselves to a supreme being, but how obsessed people can get when they experience art that speak to them. Whether it’s something religious or not, anybody can find something to obsess over, and project themselves onto somebody greater than them.  It’s also a story about ego and creativity, two big things a lot of deities are known for.  Javier Bardem is the epitome of God; he’s charming and soothing, but can snap and make you feel his wrath at any second. The relationship he has with mother is intense and heartbreaking, where can never compromise with her, unless it benefits him in some way. When people arrive to Him’s house and heap massive amounts of praise on Him, he can’t get enough of it and wants more and more. Although they’re destroying everything he created, his ego is too much. He knows that him helping people forms a bond and connection with him that they wouldn’t have had before. What’s great is that you could obviously look at it as God’s point of view, but also just as an artist’s point of view: a lot of artists want to be loved, and are only able to get validation through their creation. 

Yes, it’s all very obvious what Aronofsky was trying to go for mother!. Mother nature is inherently good, while man is inherently bad. We don’t care what we destroy, as long as we’re happy and comfortable for the time being. Do you get it? Aronofsky certainly makes sure you do by the end, but for me, there’s still a lot more to it. It’s a harrowing tale of a broken relationship that can never be fixed. It’s a haunting exploration on creation, ego, and fame. It’s a neverending nightmare that exploits all of our worst fears and anxieties. Above all, though, it’s this symbolic retelling of The Bible through a psychological horror lens that really elevates the events and made it that much more fascinating to me. We’re not just watching a poor woman lose her mind as everything crumbles around her, but watching the destruction of the Earth itself as humans destroy it through greed and hubris. Is it pretentious? Absolutely. Is the message a little myopic? Well, more than a little. But is it also one of the most intense, bizarre, well-acted, technically well-crafted, and engrossing films I’ve seen all year? Oh, you bet. 

9.5/10

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