Darren Aronofsky (Noah, Requiem For a Dream) wants you to know very little about mother!, his latest film starring Jennifer Lawrence as the vaguely-named Mother and Javier Bardem as the even-more-vaguely-named Him, before seeing it. I understand the impulse. This is a cinematic experience best gone into without too much context.
Ostensibly, mother! is about the relationship between Mother and older husband Him. He is a poet. She is a homemaker, literally having rebuilt The Poet’s isolated country home back up from its bones, following a mysterious fire that robbed him of all his worldly possessions. It is a laborious job, but one Mother takes simple pride and joy in. While The Poet struggles to find the inspiration to write his next book, Mother makes the house into their personal Eden.
The relationship between Him and Mother is loving, but unbalanced. The Poet relies heavily on the work Mother does — cooking, cleaning, and renovating the house, as well as the emotional labor of supporting and loving her husband. For his part, Him rarely listens to Mother’s wants, needs, and desires. When The Man (Ed Harris) and his wife (a delightfully devilish Michelle Pfeiffer) show up and The Poet lets them stay in the house without asking Mother, the cracks in their relationship begin to fissure.
We stay close to Mother throughout the entire film, with the eponymous character appearing in almost every scene. This directorial choice, bolstered by Lawrence’s performance, grounds the grandious thematic aspirations of the film.
As you may have guessed, mother! is not exactly what it seems, which is where much of the film’s narrative power comes in. Like all of your favorite surrealist psychological horrors — from Rosemary’s Baby to Mulholland Dr. — mother! makes its main character, and the viewers along with her, question their own understanding of reality (or, in the viewer’s case, cinematic reality). Is this a supernatural relationship drama or is it a surrealist horror with biblical themes?
As the film spirals into its fever dream of a climax, and embraces increasingly disturbing, chaotic, and violent visuals, mother! plunges into a claustrophobic nightmare logic that is like nothing that has ever been shown on mainstream film before. mother! loses some of its thematic ambiguity in these moments, and I’ll leave you to decide if the sacrifice is worth it for the visercal, biblical horror that replaces it.
Aronofsky previously undertook biblical narratives in Noah, but he is much more successful here, walking a careful line between biblical literalness and contemporary metaphor. By sidelining the most famous of biblical characters to supporting character duty in mother! and using modern contexts to relate to the viewer, Aronofsky gives this old story new life. It’s what Aronofsky chooses to do with that new spin that will surely leave viewers discussing this movie long after the closing credits have faded.
Some people will hate this movie with a visceral passion, but I would argue that kind of reaction implies a movie is effective. mother! will make you angry in interesting, purposeful ways, and leave you stretching the film’s flexible allegorical meanings to fit a myriad of contemporary culture’s most popular topics — from feminism to climate change to religious radicalism.
mother! stumbles somewhat in its main thematic exploration of womanhood, perhaps because its chief creator has no first hand experience in the area. mother! has the admirable aspiration of showing how reductive gender roles can be, and how subjugated women can be and feel in their relationships with men, especially male creators. However, in the process, it reinforces some dangerous tropes — for example that women are, inevitably, interchangeable. It is much better at critiquing the selfish vanity of creative men than it is at exploring the fullness of the female experience past how terrifying and frustrating it can be.
Beyond that, whiteness is casually centered, with people of color never, save for one example, depicted as individuals, but rather the chaotic masses, becoming particularly, problematically prominent as the movie moves into its crescendo of violence.
Despite its flaws, mother! is a movie worth seeing (unless you are sensitive to violence). It’s The Yellow Wallpaper on steroids, a challenging, female-centric thriller that will keep you trapped in your seat in even the most seemingly innocuous of moments. Like Mother herself, there is no escape from the terrifying, frustrating dream-logic of this horrifying maybe-dream world. This most famous of stories is Mother’s now, too, and that, in itself, is a subversion worthy of this effectively disturbing cinematic experience.
mother! hits theaters on September 15th.