A published poet, played by Javier Bardem, and his young wife, Jennifer Lawrence, are rebuilding his old country home that burned down. Strangers begin to show up and turn their world upside down. As usual, Darren Aronofski created a psychological thriller that keeps the audience guessing throughout the film. With Aronofski the only thing you can expect, is the unexpected.
It is hard to really talk about this movie without spoiling it. The genius behind the movie is the well crafted story and the careful way it is unraveled. The audience is only given as much information as is needed and it is doled out almost prescriptively. This is common in Aronofski movies. He knows exactly where he wants to take his audience, and that makes every aspect of the film important in driving his message and story. Much like Kubrick, all aspects of the movie are important and play a role in emphasizing and expanding on the subject matter.
The film’s focus is on one perspective and that is from the lens of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Mother. This character is uncommon for Lawrence given her track record of strong leading lady, for example, her role in Winter’s Bone, Hunger Games, and Joy. This role is different in that she is not in control, for the most part, at any time throughout the film.
I was glad that the film did not finish open ended. Once you get through the last 30 minutes, or so, it really starts to come together and make sense. I was nervous it would have a completely ambiguous ending, so it was nice to have it tied up in a nice little bow.
Throughout the movie I had plenty of questions. Many were answered by the end of the film and many still lingered. The big questions were answered by the time the film was over. Is Mother! about a woman with a disorder; a retelling of the book of Genesis; an allegory for how the human species is systematically and selfishly destroying the environment through negligence, complacency, and disrespect? The short answer to that is, yes. All of that and more.
Mother! has two main concurrent interpretations of the story line. On a literal sense, the movie is about a couple rebuilding the childhood house of the husband. While he works on writing his next piece, the wife works on rebuilding the house. It becomes clear that she takes medication to keep some sort of anxiety or perhaps schizophrenic symptoms at bay. Her fear of abandonment, loneliness, and being unloved makes her dependent upon the husband. After she reconciles her differences with her husband, temporarily, she feels safe and destroys her medicine. From there, she slowly spirals out of control until the birth of her child.
On a more metaphorical level, and in hindsight, literal sense, the story is about God and the story of Genesis. Aronofsky takes the first few chapters from the Book of Genesis and superimposes a more modern story. Mother! is the story of mankind, starting with the creation story in Genesis. God, played by Bardem, creates Earth, the home, and the holy spirit or Mother, played by Lawrence. Lawrence’s character embodies the life force sustaining all of humanity. The house, representing Earth, is a living organism. This is emphasized by the heart imagery that Lawrence connects with throughout the film.
Aronofksy frames the story with God only as the initiator of life, while Mother is the true facilitator of life. While God is working on his next creation, it is Mother who attempts to maintain order and progress on Earth. Soon God creates Adam, Ed Harris, and from his rib he creates Eve, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Once Eve enters the picture it is clear that she brings “sin” with her; almost immediately burning herself as she enters the house. She is more reckless and imposing than Adam. Eve pokes and prods Mother, gets drunk, asks for prescription pills, and eventually breaks the crystal (the forbidden fruit). Eve also treats Mother with contempt and gives her the stink eye most of the time. I am not sure why there is resentment on the part of Eve. Perhaps it is just a superiority complex over being the better “mother”, “wife”, “lover”, etc… Eve may be envious of Mother’s position and proximity to God or it could just be another facet of her expression of “sin”.
The story continues on through the death of Able, played by Brian Gleeson, by the hand of Cain, played by his real-life brother Domhnall Gleeson. Chapter 4 of the Book of Genesis contains the death of Abel. When I read that part in Genesis it was clear that it influenced some imagery in Mother!.
[4:10] And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!
[4:11] And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
[4:12] When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.1
The blood of Abel creates a wound within the house, Earth. No matter what Mother does, the wound will not heal and remains ever present.
There seems to be a shift in the story following the death of Abel, from following the Book of Genesis to a general story of mankind through a biblical lens. I am not that familiar with the Bible, but from briefly reading the Book of Genesis my understanding is that the Lord decided to eradicate mankind due to “the wickedness of mankind”.
[6:5] The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.1
Aronofsky takes a modern look at the fact that God seems not to care that mankind is completely destroying Earth. This is where the story takes an environmentally conscious shift. It is Mother, Lawrence, that is experiencing all of the problems with mankind’s negligence and selfishness and is forced to take matters into her own hands, rather than God having this revelation and handling it, as it is written in the Book of Genesis. The key here being that God does not seem to care about the Earth as much as God cares for humankind. If you take a look at the way people treat the Earth with no accountability or forethought for what that means of humankind in the long run, then the end of Mother! seems inevitable.
I am curious as to what outcome Bardem’s character is expecting to achieve through his repeated trials. Clearly he has gone through this process many times. His eagerness to appease the masses shows that he is either desperate to please or completely caught up in his own narcissism. Even as Mother fights to stay awake to protect her child, Jesus. God does everything he can to coax her into letting him show off the child, only to give the child up immediately for the slaughter. It would be interesting to see how Aronofsky would characterize or illustrate alternative trials and see how those played out.
It also seems like Mother! is designed to be “to scale” in terms of time. The beginning is much slower and drawn out, because it is spanning a long stretch of time. In contrast, the end of the movie is a chaotic, fast-paced escalation that represents the small amount of time it took humankind to get out of control. In the film, it only takes Mother a few minutes to decide she is not going to forgive everyone and chooses to destroy everything. It has been about 2000 years since the death of Jesus so maybe the apocalypse is close at hand.
It is interesting how three iterations of life exist throughout the film. The first shot of the movie shows Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, as the foremother, and the last shot of the film shows Laurence Leboeuf, as the Maiden. The reason we see a different “Mother” at the beginning and a new “Mother” at the end is because God must start over with a new life force. In a sense, he is doomed to repeat himself as he tries to perfect life.
By the end of the movie, most of my questions had been answered. However, what is the deal with the powder? We never get a good answer about the powder remedy that Mother takes throughout the movie. Before we know the true meaning behind the movie it seems like it could be a remedy for anxiety or some other disorder. That might still be the case except its life itself that is self-medicating in order to put up with the bullshit of mankind. She only appears to take it when she needs to cope with pain. These bouts of pain seem to appear when situations occur that break the balance or tranquility she is constantly striving to achieve. Perhaps the powder is just her way of taking a pure shot of life force, untainted by God’s creations.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Aronofsky alludes to the purpose of the powder as follows,
“Oh, no, this is the one I don’t love answering,” he said. “Let’s just say that it’s hearkening back to Victorian novels and the idea of a deeper connection for her and the house.”2
This has led many to speculate that the director is referring to the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This Victorian-era work follows a woman and her young child living with her physician husband and sister in an old mansion in the countryside. The story chronicles her slow descent into madness. In the story she explains the medicine she is given from her husband to combat her “condition”.
So I take phosphates or phosphites — whichever it is, and tonic, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.3
Her husbands controlling nature leaves her fearful to live as she would like, yet guilty if she is not grateful for his desire for her to be comfortable and safe. This can be seen in several passages of the story.
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency — what is one to do?… I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus — but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition…I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day, he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.3
We learn that she is staying in the mansion for a three-month period in order to cure her through rest. She asks to stay in a room on the main floor, but the room does not have enough windows or ventilation. Her husband decides to have the upstairs room, with more windows and ventilation, function as their bedroom. The room’s torn wallpaper, barred windows, banged up floors, and nailed down bed leads her to believe it used to be a nursery, however this is never made clear. Her disgust for the terribly yellow wallpaper, and the room in general, soon becomes an obsession. Eventually leading to her seeing women creeping on all fours behind the wallpaper. In an attempt to free the women from the wallpaper she begins to rip the wallpaper from the wall until she embodies her hallucination.
After reading The Yellow Wallpaper it is easy to see many similarities. So I can see why this stands out as a possible influence. Given the unsettling nature of this story I would be surprised if it was not a favorite of Aronofsky. If Aronofsky did not use this story to influence Mother!, or even if he did, he should turn this into a film on its own.
There is a lot to unravel in this film, many layers. Aronofsky has a way of creating mesmerizing films surrounding unexpected subject matter. This is certainly an interesting way to tell a story as old as time. I wonder if Mother! will resonate in religious communities or be well-received by theologists. The main message to take away from Mother! is that if we do not take care of Earth, then Earth will take care of us. If humankind continues to act like a plague then we run the risk of being exterminated like one.
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
Edited by: Andrew Weisblum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Runtime: 2h 1m
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery, Psychological Thriller
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
3 – https://www.nlm.nih.gov/theliteratureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf