Explainers

‘mother!’, Explained

September 20, 2017
16 min read

Darren Aronofsky must be having a “gotcha moment” right now. He cast Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most beloved and popular actresses of her generation, as the central character; kept the details of the film under wraps; made Paramount market it as a psychological horror thriller to bring audience to the theater and then BAM! He delivers a symbolic, unrestrained two hours of cinema that deals with one of the (if not THE) most controversial and sensitive themes ever. Ah, the sheer audacity! It’s quite admirable. But, I keep wondering: Did they really think they could get away with it? It’s an industry where vast majority of the audience accept and celebrate pointless sequels churned out by studios. Again and again and again.

Then comes a director and a studio with a wild, provocative film. How dare they?! Anyway, while pretending to feel bad for the audience who felt cheated and ended up hating the film, I have to say that ‘mother!’ is one of the best movies that I watched this year. It is one of the boldest films that came out from a major Hollywood studio in years. Of course, they paid the price for it. The film is being butchered by the audience and even got a rare F grade from Cinemascore (which is a research firm that evaluates audience reactions before the wide release of a film). Only twelve films have been awarded the F grade by them in the past thirteen years! So, is it that bad? Absolutely NOT! But, why the abysmal ratings? Here we go:

Obviously, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

‘mother!’, on the surface, is a deeply disturbing, home invasion psychological horror thriller. Inspired by the likes of Luis Bunuel’s surreal drama ‘The Exterminating Angel’, Aronofsky made ‘mother!’ apparently based on a fever dream that he had. The entire film actually feels like one. We anxiously, suspiciously follow Jennifer Lawrence walking around an old creaky house for two hours during which things escalate quickly and go nightmarishly bad.

The Plot

The film opens with the shot of a burning woman in the midst of a fire. Subsequently, we see Him (Javier Bardem) gleefully placing a crystal on to a stand. The burnt structure that he’s in transforms into a refurbished house. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up. She is married to Him and he’s a poet. She occupies herself by redecorating the house while he is trying to write. The house is in a pristine, secluded location surrounded by nature. She seems to have a special connection to the house. It is as if it’s alive and she can feel its beating heart when she presses herself up against the walls.

One fine day, to this peaceful world, enters Man (Ed Harris). Him is clearly enthused to see the guest and invites him to stay while Mother is wary of the stranger. She feels tremors in the house as if something has disturbed the system. Reluctantly she agrees to let Man stay the night. During the night, Mother sees Man being assisted to the toilet by Him. Man has a wound on his torso around his rib cage which Him hastily covers up. In the morning, another guest arrives: Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer)! Guess what? She’s Man’s wife. The new guest makes Mother more nervous and restless while Him seems happier to see another face and ends up offering to let them stay! As it turns out, Man and Woman are huge fans of Him’s work and they are here to meet Him as Man, who is dying, wishes so. Unfortunately the curious couple accidentally breaks Him’s beloved crystal which makes Him furious! Meanwhile, their sons arrive at the house arguing about Man’s will. During the family drama, the Younger Son (Brian Gleeson) is gravely injured by the Oldest Son(Domnhall Gleeson). The Oldest Son flees. Him, along with the couple takes  Younger Son to the hospital.

Mother, traumatized by being caught up in the violent commotion and being left alone at home feels much worse disturbances from the house. The beating heart of the house seems to have blackened and the ground surrounding the house seems to be fuming. Him comes back and says that the son died at the hospital. At night, many more people arrive to take part in a memorial service for the son, obviously making Mother more anxious. The people who came over prove to be terrible guests by doing things such as attempting to have sex in the hosts’ bedroom, painting the walls without permission, sitting on unbraced sinks even after repeated warnings, hitting on Mother and what not! The mess culminated in a few guests breaking the unbraced sink and thereby flooding the kitchen. Him intervenes. They are all sent away. Mother lashes out at Him for making her clean up his mess. She complains about their sex life, or lack thereof, which provokes Him to force himself on her. Although she resists at first, she submits to him eventually.

Mother wakes up happy to announce that she is pregnant (She knows somehow). The news makes Him so happy that he got rid of his writer’s block. He finishes a poem and publishes it. Mother makes dinner to celebrate. When they are about to have a seemingly perfect dinner, the press arrives. Him is easily drawn to the admirers while Mother is worried and stays inside the house. More and more people arrive. Him is enjoying the fanfare. The fans started to come inside the house to use bathrooms. Then, they started stealing things from the house. Meanwhile, Him’s publisher (Kristen Wiig!) arrives. Many of the fans seem to possess a copy of Him’s latest work. Some of them are fighting over the original manuscript. Lots and lots of people pour in. They seem to be fighting amongst themselves for umm.. no apparent logical reason. There’s violence. Gunshots. Authorities arrive. Bombs. Pepper sprays. The publisher executes some fans. Some of them are dancing. Chanting. Rituals. F**king chaos! Oh, yeah, also Mother goes into labor. As always, Him arrives once things have gone real bad and somehow helps Mother to a secluded room and bars the door.

She gives birth to a boy. Everything seems good for a moment. But, apparently the fans are dying to see Him’s new creation. Mother vociferously refuses. But, Him takes the baby when she dozes off for a brief moment. She wakes up too late to see the boy being passed around by the fans during which someone breaks its neck. By the time she reaches the center of the gathering, they had hacked the baby and consumed its flesh. Heartbroken and devastated by seeing the remains of her boy, she becomes furious and starts attacking the crowd with shards of glass. They fight back, strip her and beat her bloody until, you know, Him shows up to help, a bit too late as always. She gets away, goes to the basement and reach the oil tank in there. Disregarding Him’s plea not to, she ignites the oil and burn everything to the ground.

Everyone dies. The house and everything around it is destroyed. She is almost fully burnt. Him looks intact. With her permission, Him opens her up and retrieves a crystal from her heart. Mimicking the first scene, he places the beloved crystal on the stand, smiling. The burnt structure turns back to the house. A new mother wakes up.

Yup. As cheerful as ‘A Requiem for a Dream’.

It is an intense experience. With proper lighting, a pacing that perfectly suits the descent from tranquility to a bottomless abyss of chaos, powerful performances, and the creaky moans of wooden floors, doors and vibrating doorknobs that Jóhann Jóhannsson setup for us, ‘mother!’ keeps you glued to the screen the whole time. Even without a clear understanding of the meaning of the film, it is a solid entertainer. But, it is so much more!

The Meaning

DISCLAIMER: My knowledge Abrahamic religions is fairly limited and hence there could be inaccuracies in my references to religious texts.

‘mother!’ is based on the events depicted in the Book of Genesis, which is the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. It deals with God, creation of the world, the story of Adam and Eve and the events following their disobedience. How? Let’s draw parallels between the two plots:

Him : God

The creator who has too many passionate followers! Of course, Him is THE HIM! Duh! His fans love his work. He is portrayed as forgiving and kind. They respect him. And, if you notice, whatever mischief they do, it is always when he isn’t around. Only, Mother sees how naughty the children are and she suffers. He enjoys the fandom. He is happy when the press comes over. Ecstatically, he says “They have come to see me!” He loves to invite everyone to the house (Although he does nothing to take care of the house). That’s where Mother comes in.

Mother : Mother Nature

She builds the house (Nature) from scratch. She has an internal connection to the structure. She can literally feel its heart. Even small disturbances bother her. She is wary of strangers. She perfects the house whenever she can. She submits herself to God and serves him. She loves his work, apparently.

Then, Man and Woman enter the house and ruin the paradise that she’s been creating. They make a mess out of everything. Things only get worse when more people come in. They don’t pay attention to her; they totally disregard her warnings; they use the house as if it’s theirs; they steal from her; they break stuff; they fight each other in her house; they alter things that aren’t supposed to be touched; they strip her naked; they try to lynch her to death; they have zero respect for her; and, in the end, they thank God for hosting them! Huh! Sounds familiar?

Man : Adam

He was the first fan of God. God gave him a place in his Paradise. He says pointing at a copy of God’s famous work, “I am a huge fan. I have read it many times. It changed my life”. On the first night, God makes him a companion from one of his ribs. Eve. Remember the wound on the side of Man when Him was helping him in the bathroom on the first night? And, the next morning, guess who shows up?

Woman : Eve

She is brazen and inappropriate. She has no shame in prying and making Mother uncomfortable. But, just as her better half, she respects God and is grateful to him. And, the God loves their love… until they cross the line. The curious couple did the one thing that they were not supposed to do. Touch the forbidden fruit (The crystal). God becomes furious and literally asks them to leave.

Diving into the Adam-Eve narrative, once God asked them to leave, their sons show up. The oldest son beats the younger one to death. According to the Book of Genesis, Cain is the oldest son of the couple. He kills his younger brother Abel (for unconfirmed reasons. Most probably envy) after which God punishes him to a life of wandering. In the film, the oldest son fights and kills the younger one regarding their father’s will and then leaves the house. The ever-so-forgiving God gives the couple another chance after the death of their son.

During the memorial service, some of the attendees broke the unbraced sink and guess what happened? The Flood! According to the flood narrative from the Book of Genesis , God instructed Noah to build an ark and save a male and a female from all species while he reverses the earth back to the pre-creation state of watery chaos. After a while, he remembered righteous Noah and the flood subsides. (Fun fact: Aronofsky’s previous film ‘Noah’(2014) was based on this event)

Inspired by the prospect of the birth of his son, God publishes a new work! The New Testament, the teachings and life of Jesus, the son of God. Once again, people love his work. He garners many followers. He presents his son to them. They kill him and feast on his flesh and blood.

“For My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him.”  – John 6:55-56

Here, the allegory is too much on the nose! Anyway, the God still wants to forgive them! But, Mother obviously refuses. She burns everything to ground. Apocalypse. But, God survives, obviously. He creates the world, once again, and a new mother wakes up!

Well, now that I think about it, I am not surprised by how the audience received the film. Religion is arguably the most sensitive theme one could deal with. More importantly, the movie unabashedly criticizes the way Mother Nature is being undermined by religions. The film also comments on the nature of God that most religions envision. It portrays exactly how God has been described by religious texts: Kind and forgiving. But, somehow the director goes deeper and see how “kind and forgiving” He actually is!

God vs Nature, Environmentalism

On the very first night, Man tells Mother, “You built all this by yourself? So, you are not just a pretty face!” The way we treat nature is basically summed up in that insult. Earlier when he was about to smoke inside the house, Mother had politely asked him not to do. But, he continues to do it when she isn’t looking. (She finds cigarette butts and a lighter in his room). At the same time, he just can’t stop talking about how great God’s work is! Then, Woman enters. The fire alarm in the house goes off. Literally. She makes a mess in the kitchen while making lemonade, leaves used tissues on the bathroom sink and clogs the toilet! (Yes, I am talking about the flushing-a-heart-down-the-toilet scene. God knows what that means!) She totally undermines Mother while admiring Him. She says “Your husband has been so generous”. During the memorial service, they all thanked Him for hosting and drink to His kindness. A random guy who hits on Mother calls her an arrogant c*nt when she avoids him! Classy! In the end, when they destroyed everything that she cherished, she rains down fire and fury on them and demolishes the world that she created, with the VERY SAME LIGHTER that Man used in the beginning to, you know, smoke inside the house. I have to admit! The allegory couldn’t possibly be better. Global warming, y’all!!

The nature of God

Him is a self-indulgent bastard. He invites Man inside because he was bored. Then he created Woman. He loves the attention. He is forgiving as long as his fans stay loyal and thankful. But, he doesn’t do anything for the house. He simply doesn’t care about it, does he? He just keeps on doing his work even though things go wrong the same way every time. The reincarnation aspects of Hinduism and Buddism comes into the picture here. According to both those religions, there is no end of the world as such. It is a cycle. It happens over and over again. He never seems to learn from his mistakes. More importantly, it doesn’t matter to Him as long as He gets to engage in the creative process. Now, the writer doesn’t add anything on his own to the character. Everything is based on how the creator has been described in various religious texts. Even so, at best, He comes off as a kind, attention-seeking, self-centered narcissist who engages in intellectual masturbation pretty much all the time. (No wonder Mother said “You can’t even fu*k me” to his face!) Again, it’s not my imagination. The writer didn’t cook it up himself either. It’s all based on how He has been traditionally described! Really.

Other Themes

Apart from the God-Nature duality, the film deals with the process of creation in a general sense as well. A creative process can be extremely self-indulgent, at times. As they say, Shakespeare to Empire State building; Picasso to Mozart; everything is sort of a mating ritual. It is more often than not, a selfish affair. The herald refers to Mother as ‘the inspiration’. But, the creator just doesn’t care about the inspiration any more. He is looking forward to the fame and love from his fans! Mother, in her dying moment, complains “I gave you everything! You gave it all away”. Obsession to one’s work could take a toll on one’s relationship to those surround them.

Coming back to religion, the genders roles that Him and Mother perform matches exactly to what most religions basically put forth. He is the bread winner who only cares about the work. She takes care of the household and, for all practical purposes, is just his maid. A friend of mine who watched the film with me actually wondered why Mother Nature was so submissive. Shouldn’t she be powerful? We saw what she is capable of, in the end. I personally believe that the dutiful portrayal of the Mother is deliberate. She is the perfect wife, as prescribed by the general patriarchal status quo. She silently suffers when he make rash decisions. She doesn’t seem to have a say in anything. If you think about it, the sexual interaction between them was borderline rape (if not, actual rape)! But, she forgot about all that the next morning when she realized that she got pregnant. Because, that’s her sole purpose in life, you see? She is insecure about losing him. In one of the scenes, the Woman judges Mother and blames her for their not-so-exciting sex life! It is, on some level, a patriarchal fantasy that go hand in hand with religion almost all the time. There’s this one line from Woman that I absolutely loved for conveying all this. She says “Oh. You really do love Him. God help you!”

Finally, what’s with the lowercase?

In the credits at the end of the film, the only character with a capitalized first letter is Him. Everyone else in the universe is lowercase. Even her. Why is He so special and not her? I would love to hear a convincing explanation. As for the exclamation point, I think it appropriately bookends the two hours of jaw-dropping moments that ‘mother!’ is. Let’s face it, if not Mother Nature, who else in the entire universe deserves an exclamation point?!

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