Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” is not necessarily an enjoyable film to watch. It is like experiencing a bizarre psychedelic trip gone horribly wrong; one, which only days later, you are able to find meaning in. It is manic, disturbing, and psychologically taxing from start to finish. However, much due to these same reasons, it is also irresistibly captivating, thought-provoking and at the very least ambitious in its cinematic goals.
The entire film takes place exclusively in a strange and remote house that had recently been damaged by a fire. We follow a couple, credited only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) as they attempt to renovate the house. Bardem’s character is a famous writer who is struggling with his next project. He is also the obsessive owner of a supernatural crystal-like object. Mother, his wife, possesses a peculiar connection to their home, feels anxious to get pregnant, and appears to be mostly responsible for the renovation, all the while tending to her husband's wants and needs. Despite her hard work and apparent admiration for him, he seems to take little notice of her and her evident psychological issues as he is too busy trying to find inspiration for his next piece of writing.
Instantly the film invites you to try and ‘figure it out'. It first presents itself as a domestic psychological horror, one about an oppressive relationship between a narcissistic male artist and his much younger muse whom he exploits for love and support. However, it doesn’t take long for Aronofsky to push past this category or its literal interpretation, assuring us that his film isn’t one to be labelled.
Before you know it, there is a knock on the door. It is Man (Ed Harris), who is lost and looking for a place to stay. Bardem’s character eagerly offers him a bed, despite his wife’s obvious reluctance. Man is inconsiderate towards Mother’s requests, smokes indoors, and also appears to be suspiciously wounded. The next day Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. Viciously nosey and even more careless than her husband, she proceeds to get drunk, trash the kitchen, ask offensive questions, and eventually break Bardem’s sacred crystal object. From here the film only gets weirder and all the more surreal. Man and Womans’s kids show up and get into a fistfight contaminating the house with an un-washable bloodstain. Mother gets impregnated. Bardem finds inspiration. The house once again becomes riddled with uninvited guests.
With the clever analogy of a mother’s home being opened to a world of chaos Aronofsky has found an effective way to both metaphorically portray anxiety while psychologically producing its feelings in the viewer. Could there be a more anxiety-inducing experience than having dozens of unknown guests enter your home and do as they please? They touch, break, steal, fight, and murder one another in a space that Lawrence has desperately tried to make a sanctuary for her and her child. If it’s not enough to just watch as she struggles through this strenuous and terrifying event, Aronofsky has made the film as immersive as possible. He creates a highly tense and claustrophobic visual style, one that is primarily from Mother’s perspective. The film is shot in cramped paint-peeling corridors, uses a disproportionate amount of close-ups, is heavy on shaky-cam effects, and lacks establishing shots. The result is a disorienting and nerve-wracking experience. One where we never know what’s around the corner or what exactly is happening in the periphery of the frame. This level of intensity is held to a steadily increasing pace. The film simply refuses to waver in its sense of constant anxiety, feeling like one long and chaotic ascension towards its jaw-dropping climax.
So what is “mother!” really about? Although it’s left open to interpretation, Aronofsky has confirmed a few intended readings. On a literal level, it’s a domestic horror about an anxious wife, her selfish husband, and the dangers of an oppressive relationship. All Bardem is concerned with is his own artistic creation and he is willing to let anyone into their home on the chance it’ll spur inspiration. The uncaring, self-centered artist leaning on the support of a younger woman is perhaps the most interesting and compelling layer in the film, particularly as Bardem does an incredible job with a difficult character. It offers commentary on gender roles, the male-ego, and the destructive nature of the creative process – a theme that appears to resonate strongly with Aronosfky as an artist himself. It also provides a human and emotional grounding to a film that can otherwise feel like an unrelatable spectacle of maximalist cinema.
However, as cinematic conventions are pushed to their limits and the chaos intensifies, so do the films allegorical sentiments. The film is packed to the brim with symbolism. So much so that at times it even appears to confuse itself. It can be read as both a biblical allegory and an environmentalist warning. Bardem is a God-like creator, Lawerence is Mother Earth who is being abused and tormented, Ed Harris is Adam to Michelle Pfieffer’s Eve, and their two sons are Cain and Abel. The house, which is slowly destroyed, acts as the Garden of Eden and/or planet earth, which Mother wants to be “paradise”. Obviously, this film is chock-full of meaning, to the point that its own purpose becomes diluted. Although there are symbolic subtexts, a religious allegory, and important social commentary, it is all loosely bound together within a chaotic and supernatural backdrop that leaves the film’s overall message feeling messy and incoherent – almost as if even Aronofsky wasn’t quiet sure what he was going for. That being said, I think the film’s cluttered meaning can be forgiven considering the risk it takes in breaking cinematic barriers and provoking intellectual thought – albeit unclearly – in ways that most of today’s big production films wouldn’t dare to.
With “mother!” Aronofsky has crafted a highly cerebral and experiential film, one which is as psychologically strenuous as it is symbolically rich. It offers filmgoers an experience rather than escapist entertainment. Despite its foggy symbolic meaning there appears to be a warning embedded in the film. One concerning the greed of mankind and the dangers of taking until there is nothing left. Will this movie be for everyone? Certainly not. But, if you give it a shot I guarantee it will linger with you in the following days, for better or for worse, like a strange come down from a bad trip.