Before going to the theater to see Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, I thought I knew what to expect. I had read a very brief synopsis and watched a short teaser trailer, so I was anticipating a generic psychological thriller that could only be made better by superb direction. Even twenty minutes into the film, I thought I knew what was coming. I squirmed in my seat, worrying that I had spent the price of a ticket on a complete dud and a surprising misfire from an otherwise brilliant filmmaker. I could not have been more wrong. While Mother! does has a few minor faults, it is nonetheless a fascinating, disturbing, and altogether surreal viewing experience.
As I realized after watching the film, reading about the plot does little to help you understand it, but I will provide a brief synopsis nonetheless. Mother! begins with a recently burned down house that is suddenly brought back to its former state. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens to find her bed empty, and begins looking for Him (Javier Bardem). He is a celebrated writer who is currently struggling to find inspiration. Mother, who is rather quiet and timid, has a special connection with the house, even visualizing a beating heart within its walls, but she is sometimes dizzied and frightened by these images. One day, Man (Ed Harris) shows up at the house unannounced, and despite being a complete stranger, is welcomed with open arms by Him. Mother is suspicious of their house guest, and is disturbed by her husband’s unquestioning trust in Man. The next day, Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), appears at the door, and again is welcomed by Him, despite Mother’s disapproval. While Man and Woman’s stay at the house becomes increasingly intrusive, Mother begins to question her husband’s devotion to her, and as more houseguests arrive, the situation spirals completely out of her control.
While watching Mother!, I was convinced that I understood it; I thought I knew where the story was going and could more or less predict how it would end. Aronofsky takes you down this path intentionally. The film begins like any other psychological thriller, albeit a bit more surreal than most. The audience is made to identify with a likable, seemingly ineffectual character, whose life is suddenly turned upside down by intruders. Her situation is made even more frustrating for her (and the audience) because she seems to be the only one who notices the small injustices and disturbances; the off-hand comments and rude behavior seem to be directed entirely at Mother, while all of the guests’ affection and charm is directed at Him. Her husband remains blissfully unaware, and even when faced with the reality of the situation, he seems to value his guests’ interests over his own wife’s wellbeing. It is this aspect of the story that, at first, I found most frustrating and disappointing. It seemed as though I were watching a subpar thriller, with a laughably predictable escalation of wrongs that would eventually drive Mother over the edge. It has been done in dozens of other films, but at some point I started doubting my initial judgements. The injustices committed on Mother by her unwanted houseguests became so egregious and implausible, that I thought for a time that it must be a comedy. Every guest brought more torment to Mother, and she was too meek to do anything about it. Even when she did lose her temper, she didn’t seem to have any real effect. All of her screams fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until a little more than halfway through the film that I started to realize exactly what I was watching. It is certainly not a comedy, or if it is, then it is a very dark one. At the most basic level, it is about the destructive nature of the male ego. For the sake of their own vanity, men are willing to take everything from a woman, and when she is completely used up, they feel compelled to move on to the next one. The film is also riddled with biblical symbolism, with obvious representations of Cain and Abel, and the Mary Magdalene, among others.
It is also important to note that the story and themes are overtly feminist in nature. Some might find that designation troubling, considering it comes from the mind of a male director, but I think this is part of what makes it so truthful. Who better to understand the destructive male ego than someone who possesses it? In Mother!, we see a female character who is expected to be quiet and subservient. Her place is in the home, and to some degree, she is even physically (or at the very least psychologically) connected to the house itself. She is unable to leave, and from the time of Mother’s “birth,” she is only given meaning through her connection to the house and to Him. She is not permitted to have an effective voice, so the more Mother tries to fight back against injustice, the more severe the injustices become. When Mother finally snaps at one point and attacks the mob of intruders, she is met with violence, and the crowd spits an endless stream of misogynistic vitriol at her. But in the end, it is Mother’s husband who takes everything from her. He uses her until she has nothing left to give, and even then he asks for more. The film is brutal in both its graphic violence and the unhindered view of forced subordination. In the film, Mother comes into existence, is defined and controlled by her connection to men and domesticity, and then once they have taken everything from her, her only choice is to sacrifice everything she has for Him.
The only real issue I have with this film is its casting. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance feels out of place, and at times her reactions to things feel unintentionally comical. Even with her world crumbling around her, she offers little reaction to anything, and simply stares blankly at all of the wrongs committed in her home. A better actress could have provided the subtle nuances required for such a complex role, but sadly Jennifer Lawrence just wasn’t right for the part. Otherwise, the acting was superb, even if the characters were completely baffling more often than not.
It goes without saying that this film is difficult to watch at times. At first, it is difficult to watch because it seems so ludicrous, and later because of its extreme violence and unflinching portrayal of the pain and suffering men inflict on women. Some will find Mother! too frustrating to watch, others will find it too disturbing. Nonetheless, I think it is a fantastic film, and an important one. Mother! is definitely polarizing, but it will also prove to be a crowning achievement in Aronofsky’s career.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5