Review: Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!"
We saw Darren Aronofsky's 2017 Mother! yesterday, with Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Ed Harris. This movie was incredibly divisive with some audiences loving it and some loathing it. After viewing it, I'm definitely in the "loving" category.
The film is an unapologetic religious allegory, with only minimal effort made to connect it to the realist cinema we now take for granted.
As was the case with The Last Temptation of Christ some years ago, I can imagine that some believers may find the movie moving and some will find it offensive. It may also baffle people who are not familiar with religious stories, or who miss some of the allegory. The picture is mythological and not theological, drawing on mostly on Abrahamic traditions with some Greek, Hindu, and Buddhist themes as well.
I expect that some of the audiences who hated it weren't prepared for the hard-to-categorize form of this film, especially since the trailer wrongly pitched it as a straightforward pretty-lady-in-a-big-scary-house horror-thriller. It isn’t that kind of film at all, despite the horrors it certainly does contain. It isn't really a genre film of any kind.
This really shouldn’t be all that surprising, since Aronofsky has devoted most of his career to either making movies outside of genres (Pi and The Fountain) or movies that aggressively break genre forms (Black Swan, Requiem For a Dream, The Wrestler, Noah.) While some of these movies were big hits, those that were seemed more carefully marketed so that audiences had at least a clue what they were in for. Everyone who went to see Black Swan or Requiem, for example, knew they were in for a wild ride. This was sadly not the case with Mother! and so these four stars (including America’s current sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence just entering her prime) now have a colossal financial flop in their credits. This is a bit of a surprise considering that Bardem and Lawrence have won Oscars, and that Harris, Pfeiffer, and Kristin Wiig (see below) have been nominated many times — a cast with a pedigree like this can often be successfully marketed.
No worries, though, because it’s a great film.
The film is the story of God, the creation of the universe, the Eden story, the Flood story, the Messiah story, and the Apocalypse. This grand story is told as the story of a poet and his wife living in a huge unfinished house all by themselves.
After a brief and baffling glimpse of a woman vanishing in fire is offered without explanation, the film opens with Lawrence’s character waking up alone in a big house. Her first word is a question — “Baby?” She walks around the sprawling, unfinished house looking for her husband. All of the rooms are empty. She checks on the front porch, to find a pleasant but silent wilderness as far she can see, with no animals or birds. She is eventually surprised by her husband and we come to learn that they are deeply in love, but there is conflict.
It turs out that the unnamed husband (Bardem) is a mad-tortured-sexy Byronic poet, struggling in his upstairs study to put his next creation down on paper and the unnamed wife (Lawrence) is the definitive Earth Mother, busy creating a beautiful home for them to enjoy. It’s a huge place, which she refers to as their “paradise.” They have no children. She is devoted and doting, a glowing and barefoot natural beauty. He is loving, clearly, but also significantly older and seriously distracted by the work that has become an obsession.
So he’s God, the God of Abraham, possessed of infinite creative power, with a certain I-Thou quality to his love, and with ways that seem mysterious and inexpiable. She’s Gaia, the Earth Mother from the Greek mythos, yearning to give birth to Heaven and Earth.
Just at the moment he seems to have an idea, there is a knock at their door. God opens the door to greet an orthopedic surgeon (Harris) who thinks the house must be a bed and breakfast where he can stay. He’s Adam, curious, friendly, and awed by God. He’s also apparently mortal, with a nasty smoker’s cough and a penchant for strong drink. God insists that he stay, to Gaia’s alarm and surprise. She protests privately to God, but he insists “Do you want me to ask him to leave?” so she consents.
Adam and God hit it off, walking out in the cool of the day, and become close quite quickly. She tries to carry on as best she can but it is difficult for her. Adam insists on smoking in the house, which disgusts her, so she hides his lighter.
One night, she awakens to find God missing from their bed. She finds him in the bathroom with a Adam, and Adam is not well. He is vomiting, and he has a large open wound on his rib cage, which God quickly covers up. God insists everything is going to be fine.
The next morning, there is another knock at the door. This time, Gaia insists on answering it herself, and discovers Eve (Pfeiffer). Eve has a bit of Lilith in her — she is quite bold, sexually assertive, and unapologetic. “Did you know he had a wife?” Gaia demands of God. Eve quickly intimidates the less-confrontational Gaia, and shames her for being sexually naïve and childless. “Look at you,” Eve says to Gaia. “He should be all over you.” Eve leaves all kinds of messes everywhere in the house. Gaia rushes behind her, trying to clean up, trying to keep order in her still-unfinished home, but Eve keeps pushing the limits. (Side note: This is the best work I have seen Pfeiffer do in years and years. She commits fully to a complex supporting character, and there’s not a trace of movie star glitter in her performance.)
We learn that Gaia has private moments that seem like panic or breathlessness. She keeps what appears to be an apothecary's powder in her medicine cabinet, a bit of which she pours into a glass of water and drinks. This seems to restore her. It is never clear what it is exactly, or why she takes it, or if God is aware of it.
It is made clear that God has given Adam and Eve free passage to the whole place, to the dismay of Gaia, with the single exception that they must not enter his study without him, and they most certainly must not touch a fragile, precious, and forbidden crystal he keeps there. It’s about the size of a small fruit. Eve keeps trying to intrude to look at the crystal, and Gaia keeps rushing her out.
One day, the inevitable happens, and God and Gaia hear a crash upstairs. They find Adam and Eve in the study with the broken crystal, both apologizing. God rages, sends them out, and seals up the door to his study. Gaia is heartbroken for God’s loss and tries to force Adam and Eve away from their home to no avail.
At that moment, there is another knock at the door, which of course turns out to be Abel. He is followed in short order, by his raging brother Cain. (The two brothers are played by real-life brothers Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson.) There is a vigorous argument about Adam’s will (remember he has a morbid cough) in which Cain breaks the skull of his more-favored brother, the blood seeping into the floorboards, dripping down into the basement, where it opens up the gate to Hell. A toad hops out of it and into the world.
Well, things get a lot worse from this point on. God helps rush the bleeding Abel to the hospital. When he returns, he tells Gaia that the boy died in his arms. Cain flees, heading east of Eden. Dressed in mourning clothes, Adam and Eve return to the house, bringing with them many more people who they seem to be close to. Gaia panics as the hordes of people begin to fill the house, making messes, intruding into private rooms, cavorting in their bedroom, and recklessly sitting on a sink that Gaia repeatedly warns is not yet bolted down. God tries to console the grieving people, and seems sad that Gaia cannot hear the music of their grief.
Eventually, the sink breaks of course, and the house floods, scattering the people and wrecking portions of the house. Everyone clears out.
God inspired by the grief of the people, completes his new poem, and it is a hit. Gaia stops drinking her powder, and discards it.
God and Gaia finally spend some time together, and make love. Upon awakening, Gaia is overjoyed to realize she is pregnant, which delights God even though he again welcome hordes of people back into the house, who are excited about the new poem. This time Gaia seems deeply fearful of the people, and increasingly cannot understand God’s undying love for them. His publisher (Kristin Wiig) shows up and begins marketing his new work to the people. It is a hit, although it seems there are multiple versions of it.
When Gaia gives birth to their child, they rejoice together. It is a son, and she nurses him, and he is beautiful and serene in her arms. God demands that Gaia let him hold the baby. Fearful of the humans beyond the door, Gaia refuses. God again demands his son, a bit more forcefully, and she again refuses. He patiently pulls up a chair, and sits down to wait. Eventually, she falls asleep and he takes the child, handing him over to the people.
The baby is of course sacrificed. The people kill the baby, and eat it.
The third eschatological act of this movie is just as nuts as you can imagine might come from the director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream. The last two thousand years of human history take place in this house full of people, who now divide into elaborate factions. They imprison and torture and murder each other while Gaia wanders from room to room, screaming in anguish and loss and horror. The people continue to destroy the house, wasting its resources, and spoiling its beauty. This theme of humans destroying nature gets stronger, and eventually they attack Gaia herself, and she is seriously injured.
Fearful, and realizing that the people will never stop destroying paradise, Gaia descends into Hell, and with the lighter she hid from Adam, she sets fire to the house. It is completely destroyed in a great conflagration, and all the people perish. The house itself, all of creation, vanishes in the flames, to God’s horror and sorrow.
Gaia herself is nearly consumed by the flames. In her final moments, God gently holds her in his arms, and tries to comfort her. He tells her that there is nothing left in the flames but her love. She tells him this is true, and with a tear, tells him to accept her love. He reverently reaches into her chest, lifts out her heart, and within it finds a beautiful, precious, and fragile crystal. It is the size of a fruit.
The scene opens with a beautiful young woman, a different young woman, waking up alone in a big house. Her first word is “Baby?”
The credits roll, and the only music that appears anywhere in this scoreless film is Patti Smith’s cover of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World.”
The story of the universe, set in a single house and told in two hours.