Mother! weaves so many threads and asks so many questions that grappling with the whole picture in less than 1000 words is daunting. In many ways, the film is about the entire history of humanity condensed into one house and two hours of run-time. Evoking both the life-cycles of The Fountain and the Judeo Christian traditions of Noah, writer/director Darren Aronofsky uses Mother! to meld of his Eastern and Western ideas into one film.
It begins with Him (Javier Bardem) wandering the charred remains of his childhood home. As he begins to take in the house, it is restored before his eyes, transformed back into something beautiful. And in this restored house is a woman (Jennifer Lawrence), his wife. He is a poet suffering from writer’s block, she occupies her time remodeling the house, the house he grew up in but she had to rebuild after a catastrophic fire.
Already the nature of the man, the woman, and the house is unclear. The audience views the film through woman who also does not comprehend what she is experiencing. The first incident begins with the inexplicable appearance of a Man (Ed Harris) on their doorstep. The couple lives isolated in the country and is not expecting any visitors. And once He invites the man into their home, everything begins to shift.
She perceives the house something alive and growing, as if beneath it all there is a pulsing heart running throughout the house. She nurtures and cares for it, but this man threatens the house, threatens the world she is trying to build, a world that only becomes more and more out of her control as the film progresses.
Casting aside the hefty ideas of the film, part of what makes Mother! a compelling film is watching it unfold moment to moment. The film is such a tense and uncertain piece. She is often left in a sense of disorientation as questions arise and the answers only bring more questions. Scene by scene, her sense of place and purpose become more and more threatened and challenged.
On a sensory level, the film is tensely paced with these long, uncomfortable shots and sequences that build to these brief, fever-pitch moments where it feels like everything might finally break. The lack of a movie score adds to the building sense of dread throughout the film. The silence is horrifying but the noise of disruption even more so.
As the ideas and moments begin to unfold, Mother! emerges as an apocalyptic vision of the world, a dreamscape of imagery and ideas that express humanity and creation as this fallen, twisted thing. Aronofsky simultaneously conjures the biblical arcs of humanity’s decline in Genesis while placing it within an Eastern Mysticism framework.
Mother! struggles with ideas such as what it means to be a creative force. Both She and Him are creators in some ways. She creates a world for them with the house she so painstakingly recreates while he looks to her as the muse for his poetry. And yet, these things become twisted and turned every which way as the film progresses. It is a fallen, broken attempt to create.
As the title implies, She eventually is with child and gives birth. In the birth of a child, there is the basic, biological function of humanity: procreation. In this is the ultimate idea of creativity fulfilled, one of procreation, of the union of man and woman being fulfilled with simultaneously a continuation of the self with the birth of an entirely new being.
Eventually, the film begins to look back upon itself, contemplating the act of art as its own creation and how that process wears away at the couple in its own way. In a tangible sense, the couple is giving away part of themselves to create, a part that may be too great to give and still maintain a harmonious marriage.
As lofty as these ideas sound, the core of the film is a sympathetic placement of the audience alongside the female character as center to the experience. She is not simply left as a muse for the artist, but this psychologically complex being who is troubled by the acts of Him, which often are incomprehensible to her.
In many moments, the film could be called surreal for a number of seemingly absurd moments. It is not so much surreal as it is hyper-real, a realness that circumvents the superficiality of what is considered realism in the arts. This allows Mother! to convey the essence of it all. Humanity, God, the nature of the world, and the nature of creativity. In many ways, it is the pinnacle of the idea Darren Aronofsky has been circling around his whole career.
Does that make it a work of sincerity or a self-serving form of flattery? Is Aronofsky trying too hard to play god or is the whole point of human existence not unlike playing god? Is the film a tonal mess and does it earn its ending? Why do we even strive to continue creating art if not to somehow delve into these truths, to continue to push at a veil of truth that cannot be expressed through rationelle, reason, science and the intellect? Is this a deep emotional truth or manipulative filmmaking?
How you answer these questions certainly will shape whether or not you think Mother! is a good film. The answers will also reveal a lot about what you think of life, the arts, and the universe. In this sense, Mother! is a dark mirror, one put up to reflect back the rough edges and cracked skin that make up us, who we are, and what we think. For me, it all comes back to those opening moments: we long for paradise in the ashes of a burnt-out home we call earth.
© James Blake Ewing 2017