Movie Review: mother! (2017)

It’s next to impossible, and I would say almost entirely fruitless, to try to talk about this movie without delving too deeply into spoilers. So this whole review will be a spoiler. That being said, here’s my brief opinion, which I’ll go into much greater detail with below: mother! is a movie so offputting that I can’t really recommend it to anybody, but I also think it’s a unique theatrical experience that, if you’ve got the stomach for some intense shit, I think is worth seeing in a theater. 

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Friends, mother! is a trip. Though it touches on a lot of horror elements and is kind of an adaptation of one of the world’s most famous books, it is also unlike anything I’ve seen outside some very old books. Because mother! is really a film-length allegory for much of Christianity, and not only that, but also a critique of that religion’s inherent cruelty. The allegory is cemented early on, with versions of Adam (Ed Harris) and Eve (Michelle Pfeiffer) overstaying their welcome in a house newly renovated by a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her poet-husband (Javier Bardem). From there on out, each bit of weirdness can, through metaphors both tortured and kind of great, be explained as versions of biblical phenomena. But this isn’t an adaptation of the Extreme Teen Bible, this is an atheist’s nightmare vision of the foundational horrors in the book and religion.

If mother! works at all, it is because it is made with such assurance by its crafters. Darren Aronofsky has never been a subtle or restrained filmmaker, and his daring and desire for outsized drama propel this movie even in its quieter scenes. He keeps the camera close to Jennifer Lawrence at all times, even uncomfortably so. The attention to her face in the extreme close-ups and  the back of her head in the close-following shots he has used to great effect throughout his filmography allows the audience to not just see what she sees but feel what she feels. When houseguests won’t leave her beautiful but still-damaged house, her anxiety is reflected in the way the camera seems almost unable to keep up with her frantic running around the tight corners of the house, glimpsing the further damage her guests are inflicting. Some audiences will be turned off by the technique, I’m sure, but I’ve always loved how Aronofsky uses the camera to get inside his characters, especially in the body horror duo of The Wrestler and Black Swan. mother! makes it a trio, and what a trio it is. Jennifer Lawrence, like Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman before her, gives one of her best performances because Aronofsky so expertly captures her embodied horror. Lawrence doesn’t say too much in the film, but it is so easy to tell and to feel what she is feeling at every moment of the film.

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It’s not just the visuals and acting that create an immersive experience, either. As is typical with Aronofsky’s films, the sound plays a crucial role in making the audience feel along with Jennifer Lawrence. There are sharp tings when china crashes to the ground and, later, booming explosions. But I’d guess there’s just one sound that people will remember from this film. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jennifer Lawrence eventually gives birth to a pretty cute baby, given the movie’s title. It happens after an extended sequence of intense noise and violence, and after Lawrence’s birthing screams end the noise drops out of the film. There’s a preternatural calm as Lawrence and her offspring share some moments of love. But she eventually nods off and her husband takes the baby out to the adoring masses that have colonized the rest of the house. Again, the sounds are different from what we’ve heard in the rest of the movie, here they’re cries of joy instead of shrieks of anger and terror. Lawrence wakes up and yells after her baby, who is getting crowd-surfed through the crowd, baptizing them with its urine. And then the snap happens. It’s disgusting and revolting, a far cry from the kind of lurid entertainment that the other movie prominently featuring child-death this month peddles in. The baby, who you should probably recognized by now as Jesus, is dead in an instant and in that instant the movie will probably lose much of the audience that has stuck with it so far. It’s hard to judge them. I was shocked and I’ve seen things like Martyrs. I can’t imagine how it would feel to mothers. Because if that wasn’t bad enough, the next sounds you hear are the baby’s flesh getting torn off its body and then eaten in a perverse portrayal of the sacrament of communion. So yeah, the sounds in this movie will likely be the most haunting element in a movie full of them. It’s intense.

But to what end? This movie doesn’t really work without the allegorical elements. If you’re watching this just as the story of a woman and a man, it’s going to be unfulfilling. The unending weird elements are a distraction if they aren’t allegorical and just kinda dumb if taken literally. I’ve also seen the movie described as being about Aronofsky and how difficult it probably is to be his wife/girlfriend. Smart people to whom I go for things like this have focused mainly on this element. I think it’s a fruitful one, but one that only reaches its full potential when paired with an examination of the biblical allegory that rests at the center of the film and a discussion of the film’s generic elements.

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Let’s start with the genre stuff. I’ve called this movie body horror and biblically terrifying, and both are, I think, fitting. But the real genre this falls into is the paranoia horror/thriller that Roman Polanski made his calling card. There are hints of Rosemary’s Baby here and there, but it’s Repulsion that mother! feels the most like. Lawrence’s performance owes a lot to Catherine Deneuve’s portrayal of a person whose madness is reflected in and caused by her surroundings. Aronofsky’s techniques are lifted almost wholesale from that film’s claustrophobic and intense camerawork. Where mother! departs from Repulsion is in its treatment of the secondary characters in the film. Where Polanski leaves the question of malicious intent from the outside world open, Aronofsky makes it clear that the people who have taken over Lawrence’s house are there because her husband permits it. This breach of trust causes most of the problems in the film. Though Bardem’s intentions early on might be kind even as he ignores Lawrence’s protestations, he continues to be blind to her experience within her own house. She worries that she’ll lose him to his adoring fans, and her fears are justified. His insistence on presenting the child to his followers leads directly to the baby’s horrific end. And his urging of Lawrence to forgive the cannibals for their carelessness drives her to an apocalyptic end. The paranoia is not only founded in the reality of the film, it is the center of its critique of relationships and Christianity.

The relationship critique is, shall we say, problematic when viewed on its own, divorced from the paranoia horror aspects or the religious allegory. On a strictly plot basis, this is the story of a woman who is driven to suicide by a man who ignores her at best and uses her in a very real sense at worst. The beginning and ending of the film illustrate that this is not a one-time situation, either. Lawrence is part of a cycle of abuse that shows no sign of stopping. The last shot also clarifies that it isn’t necessarily the same woman over who the poet must use over and over again. Any woman will do. His use of women is total, too, as he demands both Lawrence’s offspring and her still-beating heart as a last act of sacrificial love, one which will power the next version of the abusive relationship. This is some pretty terrible stuff, and I think somebody smarter than me needs to examine the implications of Lawrence’s decision to give her love to Bardem so completely even as she recognizes how abusive he can be. I also, however, think that telling the story of an abusive husband in the context of a paranoia horror film is clever, especially when the movie validates all of the paranoia it conjures. Bardem doesn’t start as an obvious villain, but by the end his intense creepiness and abusive actions are on full display. At least with Bardem’s character, the critique is clear. He is not a good man. He uses his wife as inspiration but does not see her as a real human with real feelings and emotions. All the while, the audience is thrust into Lawrence’s perspective, and we feel her pain and terror with her. Bardem’s villainy is tied directly into his role as an artist and the way that it and the fame that surrounds it fuels his abuse.

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The only way that I can make sense of the sacrifice that Bardem asks Lawrence to make at the end of the film is as part of the larger religious allegory. Lawrence seems to be the embodiment of the three virtues that are outlined in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” We’ve seen Lawrence cling to these three and then have to sacrifice them for Bardem’s desires. Her faith in his writing drives the scenes that feature just the two of them. But it is not her faith that drives his creation in the second half of the film, it is her body and her faith in him is only repaid by his indifference towards her. The baby, Jesus, is her hope incarnate, but that hope is brutally destroyed and then consumed by strangers who have invaded her home. And just as she starts to exhibit some agency by blowing the house up with everybody in it, Bardem reasserts his control and asks her for her love to restore the house and give him another attempt at creation. Bardem isn’t just a creator, he is the Creator. Aronofsky’s God is the villain of the film, the monster at the center of the horror film.

Through paranoia horror genre elements and an examination of an abusive relationship wrapped up in a religious allegory, Aronofsky forces us to ask why such a terrifying and destructive story holds such immense sway over our culture. The idea of a man sent to take the sins of the world upon him and then become a sacrifice so that everybody else can get into heaven is nice on the surface, but when shown as a baby who gets killed and then eaten, it becomes a horror film. We see the Bible in a new way. Petty squabbles lead to overwhelming terror and the logic of it all breaks down. The audience’s close relationship to Lawrence through the filming techniques forces it to experience everything she does, and it becomes difficult to see the whole religion as anything other than misogynist and horrific. For believers who ask God “Why me?” when things go wrong, Aronofsky’s answer seems to be an exhortation to examine your beliefs a little more closely to see what your holy book actually says.

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It’s a harsh film, then, one that confronts its audience and assaults their senses. Some will be put off by the visual style, some by the plot’s massive jumps in severity, and some by its thematic and allegoric intensity. I can’t fault anybody for these reactions. One change here or there would have likely tipped me over into intense hatred. But that didn’t happen for me. I was fully sucked into this movie. I went with it. If you can, and that’s a big if, it’s a rewarding experience both as entertainment and fodder for thought and conversation. It’s a movie I cannot recommend to anybody, but I also want everybody to see it so we can talk about it, even if it’s just to share just how crazy it is.


PS: I wanted to write about the allegory as it relates to some other biblical allegories and writings I’ve read, but I couldn’t find the space for it here. Look for another post later in the week for some thoughts on things like Julian of Norwich and Piers Plowman and The Faerie Queene. It’ll be fun!



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