Director/Screenplay – Darren Aronofsky, Producers – Scott Franklin & Ari Handel, Photography – Matthew Libatique, Visual Effects Supervisor – Dan Schrecker, Visual Effects – Hybride (Supervisors – Francois Lambert & Philippe Theroux), Industrial Light and Magic (Supervisor – Ben Snow), Mr X. Gotham (Supervisor – Eric J. Robertson) & Raynault VFX (Supervisor – Mathieu Raynault), Special Effects Supervisors – Peter Chesney, Peter Chesney, Jr. & Mario Dumont, Makeup Effects – Adrien Morot, Production Design – Philip Messina. Production Company – Protozoa Pictures.
Jennifer Lawrence (Mother), Javier Bardem (Him), Ed Harris (Man), Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman), Domhnall Gleeson (Oldest Son), Brian Gleeson (Young Brother), Kristen Wiig (Herald), Stephen McHattie (Zealot)
A woman lives in a large house with her husband, an older man who is a writer. She spends her time restoring the house. They are then interrupted by the arrival of another man, a surgeon who says he is looking for a place to rent. Her husband invites the man to stay and befriends him, even though the woman is upset at not being asked by her husband and other man’s frequent liberties. The other man’s wife then arrives. This is followed by his two sons fighting over the will, which results in the older son killing the younger. The woman is upset when her husband invites the other man and his friends back to hold a wake and the house is taken over by partygoers. She demands they be gone. Afterwards, she and her husband have sex and she wakes certain that she is pregnant, while he is reinvigorated from his writer’s block to start working again. As the date of her giving birth nears, her husband completes his manuscript and sends it off. In short course, the house is surrounded by his admirers who force their way in and cause everything to collapse into the apocalyptic.
Darren Aronofsky has emerged as a critical favourite ever since he first appeared with the reality-bending mathematical film Pi (1998). Since then, Aronofsky has gained a great many plaudits for efforts such as the drug addiction film Requiem for a Dream (2000), the mystical cross-time SF film The Fountain (2006), the huge critical hits of The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010), both of which attained major awards attention, including a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards for Aronofsky for the latter, and the Biblical spectacular Noah (2014).
None of Aronofsky’s films are exactly the same but Mother! is certainly different to all of them. Aronofsky said he wrote the script in five days and it has the feel of a small indie film, contained within the setting of a single house. It is also did not fare terribly well in release. Most critics failed to get their heads around it and panned the film, although there are a fair number that praised it (it even making it onto several Best of the Year lists). Audiences majorly turned their thumbs down – it was one of the few films to get an F from Cinemascore. In theatres, it earned only $17 million domestically, about half of its budget.
A lot of the response seemed to centre around the last thirty minutes, which was described as incomprehensible. The main problem would seem to be is that Mother! is more of an arthouse film – it is just that the presence of an A-list name like Jennifer Lawrence and a top-drawer supporting cast has propelled what would usually be a medium-budgeted arthouse release into a multiplex film. There audiences and kneejerk critics were thrown awry by watching a film that defies easy interpretation or commercial pigeonholing.
Darren Aronofsky compared Mother! to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). I’d compare it more to a variant on High-Rise (2015) maybe with a few dashes of the subjective psychological disintegration of Repulsion (1965). On the other hand, what I saw in the film seemed to be something completely different to what Darren Aronofsky stated he was making the film about what (see final paragraph below).
By the end, the film has definitely delved down into horror territory, although it is not a work that makes for easy pigeonholing within genre confines. The film comes almost like a play with a series of acts. In each of these, everything is shown through Jennifer Lawrence’s eyes – the camera is always moving, following her, returning to her reactions amid the chaos. Aronofsky places all of the sympathy with her – the entire thrust of the film is watching someone who is used to a supporting role in life have her personal space constantly being walked over, invaded and thrown into chaos. The first act involves Ed Harris moving into the house, followed by his wife Michelle Pfeiffer and then the arrival of their two quarrelling sons, resulting in the older son’s murder of the younger.
It is in the aftermath of the death that Aronofsky lets Mother! find its feet in an accomplished extended scene where Jennifer Lawrence wanders through the house as the wake takes place, becoming increasingly more aghast at seeing the liberties people are taking with her home from sitting on the unfinished sink to having sex in their bedroom to drunkenly knocking things over. After driving the people out, things calm down, Jennifer becomes pregnant and finally seems set to be the mother of the title.
However, then comes the final act of the film where Javier Bardem publishes his new book and eager fans surround and then invade the house. This time the sense of intrusion becomes increasingly more surreal and apocalyptic with the house being torn apart, even SWAT teams invading before the climactic scenes where [PLOT SPOILERS] Jennifer give birth in the midst of the chaos, the baby is snatched by an adoring crowd only to be killed and ritually eaten and the crowds then turn and tear Jennifer to pieces. She has also managed to set the oil from the furnace ablaze and burns the house down around them. In the final scenes, Bardem tears another compacted crystal from her chest and this magically refurbishes the house and in the final scene Jennifer wakes up as though nothing has happened.
While other critics and many audiences found all of this confusing, it seemed fairly straightforward to me. I read it as a surreal psychodrama that follows the state of mind of a woman who has accepted a secondary role in someone else’s life to the point that they (and by extension the people he invites into his sphere) walk all over her. It’s an eruption of horror at that passive compliance taken to an absolute extreme.
It is also tricked out with Darren Aronofsky’s penchant for cryptic symbolism – none of the characters have names, rather they are just referred to as Him, Mother, Man, Woman and so on. This becomes particularly esoteric the further down the cast list we go where we have characters named Zealot, Herald, Defiler, Pisser, Epicure, Aesthete, Novitiate, Neophyte, Penitent, Whoremonger, Supplicant and Slave Driver.
In a Reddit AMA, Darren Aronofsky later explained that the entire film is a Biblical allegory – Jennifer Lawrence represents Mother Earth and the house Eden. The Man and Woman are Adam and Eve and their two sons Cain and Abel, while presumably the compacted crystal is the Apple of Knowledge. Javier Bardem (referred to as Him on the credits) is God – Him is notedly also the author of two manuscripts, the latter of which inspires people to fanatical heights, which could be an oblique allegory for Judaeo-Christian Jehovah and the two books of The Bible, while Him giving birth to a son that is torn apart by crowds could be seen as a stand in for Jesus Christ. It follows from this that everybody else who visits the house throughout the film represents humanity and the way they have taken over the planet and how in doing so the woman (Mother Earth) has been trampled over and the Earth despoiled uncaring.