One of the most mysterious and secretive films of this fall season is Mother!, director Darren Aronofsky's latest mind-bending thriller. Since the movie comes from the same director who brought us Black Swan, Pi, and The Fountain, audiences no doubt expect twisty revelations, mind-bending realities, and, of course, uncertainty about its ending. But perhaps the most mysterious thing about the movie is what exactly the meaning of Mother! really is.
Spoilers ahead! The trailers leave a lot to be desired, keeping the film's secrets close and its plot even vaguer. The previews don't give much away, aside from the fact that it seems to be a horror-thriller starring the beloved Jennifer Lawrence. And on the surface, Mother! has all the markings of a scary home invasion story. Lawrence plays a character named simply Mother, while Javier Bardem plays her much older husband called only by the name Him. The two live in a secluded but beautiful house that Mother has refurbished from top to bottom with great care, while Him, a famous poet, struggles to write again. Though there are no roads leading up to the house, one uneventful day a devoted fan (Ed Harris) arrives on their doorstep, and chaos ensues from there.
Him invites the man to spend the night, though Mother is hesitant and nervous about the stranger. The next morning, the man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, followed by their two quarreling sons. When seemingly out of nowhere one son brutally kills the other, the mythology suddenly clicks, and you realize what exactly you're watching. That is, of course, depending on how much Sunday or Hebrew school you went to as a kid. The film is an allegory of Biblical proportions, and within the entire film unfolds the creation story, the history of Earth, and an eventual apocalypse, all taking place within the walls of a beautiful house.
Except it is't really just a house, it's the world. And Lawrence isn't just some woman, she's Mother Earth, Mother Nature, or Gaia depending on which theology suits your interpretation. She's lovingly and devotedly sculpted and perfected every inch of the place, which we're told was a house belonging to Him before it was burned in a fire. "I want to make a paradise," she says, and can sense the breathing lungs and beating heart of the Eden-like house through her touch. Him is the Judeo-Christian god; the masculine God, whose creativity has stalled. Though he's caring and loving to Mother, he can also be cold and cruel, much like the God of the Old Testament.
Harris' man has links to Abraham, but more closely to Adam, God's first human. He's got a bruised rib, and seems unbearably lonely. That is, until his wife shows up. Pfeiffer is excellent here as the stereotypical temptress version of Eve. She lures her husband into forbidden rooms, breaking Him's trust, and though Mother tries to banish them from her paradise, Him longs too much for the devotion of his worshippers. When their sons arrive, and the jealous elder kills the beloved younger (Cain and Abel) it's clear we're in Biblical territory. And when funeral revelers break a sink and water pours into the house, the connections to Noah's flood are obvious as it's the only thing that finally drives the unwelcome guests away.
From there, the Bible stories flow quickly and interchangeabley. Him embraces more and more worshippers who flock to the house to stay and pay homage. Characters named Philanderer, Thief, Zealot, and Good Samaritan weave together Biblical tales within seconds as humanity fills the house, destroying it bit my bit. All 10 plagues make a brief appearance. Kristen Wiig plays a character called Herald, Him's publicist, though Gabriel may have been a more apt name.
The history of the world, told mostly through violent wars and death, unfolds within the house, where the divided worship of Him grows more and more feverish in a reflection of religious conflict, as Mother's pregnant belly grows to the breaking point. She then becomes the Virgin Mary, a reluctant host for a baby who will be snatched away from her for Him's grander purpose and obsessive desire for love. Mother's baby plays the role of Jesus in, it should be said, the film's most sad and disturbing sequence; the Christian tradition of consuming the body and blood of Christ becoming quite the macabre act when put literally.
The insanity simmers to a boiling point when Mother finally takes matters into her own hands, destroying the house, humanity, and herself. But the cycle begins again, as Him creates another house from the ashes, another mother, and he rebirths another world in the form of another wife as the film ends. It's been said in a number of religions that God has created and destroyed the universe many times over, and with this reincarnation, Mother! dips into some more Eastern religions that embrace that repetitiousness of nature.
There's a great audacity and bravery to shoving much of human religion, history, creation, and destruction into a seemingly small space, but confining Biblical grandeur to a single house isn't Aronofsky's only metaphor at play here. If you prefer to ignore the religious elements of the film, there's also the ecological aspect of Mother Earth's destruction at the hands of humans. Mother painstakingly crafts each room of her house and lingers over every shade of plaster she lathers onto its walls, only to find it torn apart bit by bit by the supposed "guests" that laugh in her face every time she mentions that they're in "her house." The sheer number of people inside the abode is no small link to the ever-growing population of this planet. The inhabitants brutalize her as humans have done to the Earth, and Mother's decision to end it all in grand destruction could reflect our own future demise at the hands of climate change, hurricanes, earthquakes, or any number of ecological disasters.
Simpler still, Mother! may just be a reflection of Aronofsky's artistic ego. There's much this film says about an artists desire to create, how they find their muses, their need for worship, and the idea that those who love them may never be enough. Mother loses more and more of herself to Him's demand for attention and devotion to the point where one might worry for Lawrence, who, during the shooting of this film, began dating Aronofsky himself.
But artistic drive aside, Mother! makes for one hell of a wild watch. Whether or not you buy all of the allegory, it certainly is an Aronofsky film, and one to be loved or loathed much like the rest of his repertoire, and much like God's, too.