The idea of movie “spoilers” doesn’t really apply mother! (Aronofsky, 2017). The studio’s marketing campaign was careful not to reveal anything about the plot or characters but suggested that the movie was a psychological horror/thriller in the mode of Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968) and Aronofsky’s own 2010 surprise hit Black Swan. But most people who saw the movie “unspoiled” on opening weekend actually hated it.
Let us then dispense with spoiler warnings and divulge right away that, while it does end in an over-the-top, blood-drenched and exaggeratedly violent climax, it is not really a horror movie. It is neither scary nor even nearly as intense and difficult to watch as the ending of Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Like a Tarantino movie, the violence in mother! is so exaggerated and preposterous that it is closer to comedy than horror – as perhaps indicated by the campy exclamation point in the title.
So mother! is the very darkest sort of “dark comedy” along the lines of Fight Club or American Psycho which satirize American masculinity by magnifying it to absurd extremes. But the film is also obviously an allegory as well. As long as we’ve given up on spoiler warnings, let’s admit that the “Mother” of the film’s title (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is “Mother Nature”. Yes, this a long way from a typical Hollywood movie. Aronofsky isn’t even trying to give us believable characters or an understandable plot. The characters have names like “Mother”, “Him”, “Man”, and “Woman”, and the plot has the logic of a dream. It is like Aronofsky’s The Fountain if you deleted the relatively normal story lines and only kept the part about the guy who lives in a bubble in outer space and falls in love with a tree.
Just as Animal Farm is not really a story about pigs taking over a farm – it is about the Russian revolution – so mother! is not really a story about a poet and his young wife/muse living in an isolated farmhouse and dealing with unexpected house guests. Besides the sheer humorous absurdity of the increasingly outlandish events, the fun of the movie is found in trying to decipher the allegorical meaning.
At first I thought it was going to be about the creative process. It starts with a self-obsessed poet (played by Javier Bardem) whose past success and over-enthusiastic fans become a distraction that feeds his writers block. In the first half hour the movie seems like a sort of confession, Aronofsky’s critique of himself as an artist obsessed with public approval who is yet unable to receive love from his wife. But this story line is just the surface. It quickly becomes clear that there are Biblical parallels here. On one reading, mother! is a remake of Aronofsky’s 2014 environmentalist parable Noah but from the point of view of the Mother Nature.
I won’t bother to explain the Biblical allegory here, since there are many good websites that have already done that. Here’s a good example. Suffice it to say that Javier Bardem’s poet is God, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, and the rest of the characters and events similarly map onto allegorical referents from the Bible. This is all fairly obvious by the end of the film. I’m more interested in what it all means.
The point of the allegory seems to be that humanity loves its Father too much and forgets about its Mother. Aronofsky wants to remind us to love the earth as much as we love God. There is a line where the poet refers to Mother as his “wife” and the Man replies, “Wife? I thought it was your daughter”. On a literal level this is understandable since Javier Bardem is 20 years older than Jennifer Lawrence in real life. But Aronofsky seems to be drawing attention to an ambiguity about the relationship between God and Nature. Did God create the universe out of nothing as traditional Christian doctrine holds? In that case Nature would be a child of God like the rest of creation. Or was there some primordial and eternal matter out of which God created as Greek cosmology maintained? In that case creation would be birthed out of a marriage-like relationship between God the Father and Earth our Mother.
Aronofsky hints that the Christian idea of the Earth as being no more than another created being – at best morally equivalent to humanity and, more typically, as subordinate to humanity – has led us to abuse the environment. A proper relationship to the earth, Aronofsky is saying, requires us to see it as our “Mother”, morally equivalent to God.
In one of the allegory’s most obscure references, we see an occult symbol on the cigarette lighter that Mother uses to burn down the house (i.e., to destroy the entire world). It is a Wendehorn, a Germanic rune which symbolizes the unity of life and death and suggests an endless cycle of birth and death along the lines of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence”. Aronofsky seems to be a hinting that humanity is doomed to eternally repeat the same cycle of creation and destruction until we learn to honor Mother Nature as well as Father God.
As the Biblical allegory comes into focus, mother! is clearly a parable about environmental destruction. At first glance this seems amusing but not especially deep. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the film is supposed to be both an allegory of the creative process and also a parable about environmentalism, and if there is anything deep about it then it is how the two levels illuminate and play off of each other.
Mother laments that her unconditional love and approval is “not enough” for her husband. She just wants to have a family, but he is too distracted by his work to ever make love to her. This is a fairly typical, even cliche, critique of artistic obsession. But stop and think about what this means in terms of the allegory. If the poet’s fans represent the human race, then it seems like we’re meant to imagine Mother Nature lamenting the creation of humanity because she feels like she’s not enough for God by herself. The suggestion seems to be that if the Earth were enough for God apart from any human inhabitants, then God wouldn’t have felt the need to create humanity and we wouldn’t be around to destroy the environment. But this doesn’t make sense. If God didn’t feel the need to create, then Mother Earth wouldn’t have any children, either.
mother! is told from Mother Nature’s perspective, but I don’t think we’re meant to completely agree with her character. The Poet admits that “nothing is never enough” for him, because he “couldn’t create if it were”. And he has no choice but to create. Creating, he says, is simply “what I do. What I am”. God is by definition the Creator. If He didn’t create, then He wouldn’t be God. But the same should hold true for Mother Nature. If nature didn’t give birth, then she wouldn’t be a “mother”. So the Mother needs God’s creative drive in order to be herself, just as the Poet needs the household she builds as a space to fill with his creative work. They are two parts of the same creative process.
Thus the movie calls for a deconstruction of the poet/muse opposition which leads to a deconstruction of the humanity/nature opposition. mother! imagines humanity as an outside force, something the invades and corrupts nature but is not part of nature. But why assume that? If, instead we assume that humanity is part of nature – that the people in the film are not “house guests” but are family members who are part of the household – then we avoid the temptation to burn down the house just to get rid of them. (This is the same temptation, by the way, that Aronofsky explored in his previous film where Noah plans to intentionally destroy all of humanity in order to save the environment. See my discussion of that film here.)
The Bible portrays God as creating the first human being by “breathing” life into the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). So, allegorically speaking, we should see the Man and the Woman as the “children” of God and Mother Earth (the “dust”), not outsiders who show up from elsewhere as in mother! Thus the movie itself contains a hidden critique of Aronofsky’s picture of God as self-obsessed and humanity as an intruder in nature. Perhaps that is actually what Aronofsky is getting at with his call to love the earth as our Mother and not as a house we temporarily inhabit like some run-down rental property.
I don’t know if mother! is a “good” movie. In fact, I’m less and less convinced that “good” and “bad” are helpful ways of thinking about movies. All I know is that days after seeing it, I’m still thinking about mother!, which is exactly what I look for from a film.