(2017—Director: Darren Aronofsky)
(with strong moral reservations)
(out of 5 stars)
“Why does the sun go on shining? / Why does the sea rush to shore? / Don’t they know it’s the end of the world / If you don’t love me anymore?” — “The End of the World” by Arthur Kent & Sylvia Dee, performed by Skeeter Davis (1962)
“The poet says it’s everyone’s house!” — The Lingerer (Arthur Holden) to Mother (Jennifer Lawrence)
Potential spoilers below
While watching Mother!, the newest film by writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah), I could not help but think of Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror classic. Both films involve a loveless, childless marriage and the wife’s rising paranoia towards her husband and their sudden, random visitors as she advances in her pregnancy. To my surprise, the story in Mother! goes further than the familiar scenario of selling of one’s soul (and wife) to the Devil in Rosemary’s Baby. The Devil himself may not exist as a character in Mother!, but he sure does in its details.
An unnamed poet (“Him”, played by Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) and his wife (“Mother”, played by Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) live in their secluded country estate. With the poet suffering from writer’s block and uninterested, it seems, in displaying affection towards his wife, the wife presses on refurbishing their home by herself. Out of nowhere, a series of visitors intrude their world and the smiling poet accommodates them for a few days, much to his wife’s chagrin. The new company and the wife’s newfound pregnancy inspires the poet to start writing again. They do not realize, however, that the last few months leading up to the wife’s due date are merely the calm before a most bizarre and overwhelming storm of new visitors that will cause the wife to edge toward the limits of her sanity.
Mother! is a visual tour-de-force that metamorphosizes from a stricter, chamber drama update of Rosemary’s Baby to a grotesque cacophony of an allegory for the divine personality and created works—the history of the world, in a sense. At its core is a rivalry between the husband as a mighty Creator of immense popularity and his neglected and pregnant wife as Mother Nature (hence the title). Surrounding them are his adoring and ravenous fans who, at the same time, disregard the wife’s urgent requests to respect the house (i.e. Earth) and even beat her senseless.
Writer-director Aronofsky has described Mother! as a “fever dream” generated from current events, many of which involve the environment. The film is an allegory of God and the Earth and certainly does not demand literal readings by the audience. Nevertheless, the genre does serve as a vehicle for truth. As a Catholic, I simply cannot endorse certain key elements of Aronofsky’s parable.
Mother! paints Javier Bardem’s God (“Him”) as a struggling poet relishing fame and popularity when it finally arrives. He focuses on the fans of his latest poem (a substitute for the Bible) and neglects his duties as a husband to Mother (Earth). Aronofsky and Bardem present a divine personality who is all mercy, scant justice, and lives for his admirers. Moreover, the film pits Him against Mother, whom Jennifer Lawrence portrays as a hardworking and blameless victim. Mother! suggests that God cares little about those creations of less dignity than humans, including the entire planet on which they live. Late in the film, a staredown of staredowns takes place after Mother delivers their baby in circumstances reminiscent of Christ’s Nativity (the baby substituting for Christ or a precious natural resource). This could suggest a rift between God and the Virgin Mary, whose role in salvation history God prepared for her from the Fall and which she accepted freely. The Trinity, not to mention Christ with the Church, are what earthly marriage anticipates, yet Mother! injects those esteemed models with as much selfish tension as the stereotypical marriage today’s sexualized culture envisions.
If Mother! had focused on how humans, influenced by Satan, can take religious truth to extreme measures and the degradation of nature, that would have been a fairer modification and elevation of the Rosemary’s Baby-esque plot. Exaggerating God’s allowance of humanity’s free will and have him share in humanity’s blame irrevocably confuses and taints the overall impact of Mother! This blame does not come about as a demonstration of God’s proper foreknowledge, perfect justice, and perfect mercy (which would not make it “blame” in the human sense). Rather, the blame is that of a clueless host who takes his time accepting that a party has mutated beyond his control and, even worse, forgets the turbulent experience as he prepares for the next, hopefully less destructive party.
Despite making serious theological mistakes, Aronofsky does not skimp on the technical delivery of Mother! Longtime Aronofsky cinematographer Matthew Libatique focuses the camera on Jennifer Lawrence and her immediate surroundings in a way that reminded me of the engrossing 2015 Holocaust drama Son of Saul. This attachment kept my eyes locked on the screen throughout the chamber drama execution of the film’s first two-thirds. Bardem does not have to work as hard as Lawrence, but he is the glue that holds the background of Mother! together. Elsewhere, it was simply fascinating to watch actors like Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall and Brian Gleeson, and (in a bizarre twist) Kristen Wiig, project their stranger sides. The centerpiece of Mother! is a ten-to-fifteen-minute sequence late in the film in which Jennifer Lawrence fights and survives through her house as it degenerates from a frenzied riot into an actual war zone, filled with SWAT units, soldiers, and terrorist-like summary executions. Though highly violent and graphic, that sequence’s concentrated assault on the senses is worth the price of admission for some.
Does Darren Aronofsky and his film posit an eternal rivalry between a fame-craving Creator husband and a “victim of victims” creation in the wife based on the chaotic behavior of humanity? It appears so. Mother! is a film of unfiltered venting for the state of the world, yet it has the audacity to transfer some of the guilt to the Creator and leave sinless the non-human creation. Only the petulant and temperamental accuse everyone else when the world seems to work against them. Mature viewers would not want to miss the amusement and subsequent discussion of an artistic temper tantrum, especially one as breathtaking and challenging as Mother!
(Parental Note: Mother! has been rated R by the MPAA “for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity, and language.” It has also been rated 18 by the BBFC for “strong violence” and O (Morally offensive) by the Catholic News Service for containing “blasphemous images, a negative portrayal of religion, much strong and sometimes gory violence, semi-graphic marital lovemaking, a glimpse of full nudity, and occasional profanity and rough language.”)