One confusing ‘Mother!’

On how I learned to love the year’s most divisive film, now making audiences swoon and sputter

Every now and then a film comes along that divides critics (and the public) so rigorously that I want to become part of the larger discussion. “Mother!” fits the bill for me.

This weird, violent, preening, metaphorically pugnacious and downright disturbing movie from director Darren Aronofsky is both loathed (The National Review’s Kyle Smith called it “the vilest movie ever released by a major Hollywood studio”) and admired (the New York Times’ A.O Scott, stressing the film’s creative energy and “highly symbolic, pictorially overloaded” style, said it made him laugh “harder and more frequently than just about any other movie I’ve seen this year.”)

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Put-upon wife: Jennifer Lawrence stars in “Mother!”

The granddaddy of bad reviews came from the New York Observer’s Rex Reed, who called it “the worst movie of the year, maybe the century.” Then, in a snub of the usual convention in which critics ignore the existence of others of their breed, Reed spent the rest of the piece bashing Scott’s Times review. He made particular fun of Scott’s use of the term “hermeneutic structure,” — a reference to a scriptural or Biblical interpretation — in an effort to out him, I suppose, as a pretentious intellectual.

As for me: “Mother!” rocked my world. As I watched the film, I hated it. And loved it. Sometimes both at the same time. And then the love put the hate in a headlock and bashed its face in. So love won out in the end.

Warning: There are lots of potential spoilers below.

I find all this fascinating not because of the wildly divergent opinions on the quality or likability of the film, but because moviegoers can’t even agree on what it’s supposed to be about. On the surface, it seems to be the stuff of a psychological thriller. Jennifer Lawrence plays the wife of a much older poet, played by Javier Bardem. They live in a remote Victorian mansion, and she spends her days lovingly restoring the house while the poet tries to overcome his writer’s block. One morning a strange man (Ed Harris) pops up, barges in and becomes an unwelcome houseguest. He’s soon joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s even more obnoxious. In a series of ever-escalating (and surreal) humiliations and injustices, Lawrence finds her beloved house slipping out of her grasp as a wave of humanity — all “fans” of the poet — arrive to thrash the place.

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Two of the movie posters for Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!”

After “Mother!” came out, director and writer Darren Aronofsky and Lawrence — in what appeared to be an attempt at damage control — gave a series of interviews in which they attempted to explain the director’s intent. Here’s a recap from the New York Times:

“Mother!” is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem), whose poetic hit has the weight of the Old Testament: hence all the visitors clamoring for a piece of Him, as his character is called. The house represents our planet. The movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction. The action takes place on the biblical sixth day (the film’s original title was “Day Six,” Lawrence said) and follows that timeline. “You have the creation of people, you have the creation of religion itself, people reading the same writing and arguing over its meaning, false idols” Lawrence said.

So. That clears things up, right? Not quite. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who wrote a review of the film before reading Aronofsky and Lawrence’s interview in which he said that “Mother!” was obviously a satire about fame, wrote another piece afterward titled “Darren Aronofsky Says “Mother!” Is About Climate Change, But He’s Wrong.” And then he quite clearly (and arrogantly) battles back against Aronofsky, saying, “What directors—especially the good ones—put into their films is different from what comes out of the viewing of those films.”

And the debate goes on, with other interpretations sounding valid as well: It’s a movie about misogynistic relationships in which the woman does all the giving (and baking and cleaning) while the man horses around and mucks things up. Or it’s about the danger of authoritarian regimes, or the horrors of war, or the general inclination of humanity to take any old perfectly good religion and twist it into a bureaucratic and punitive bore.

I gotta say that all those interpretations seem valid, too. (The New York Post wrote: “It’s a Rorschach test of a movie to interpret however you like.”)

Which brings me to my own big takeaway: “Mother!” presents God as the ultimate narcissist.

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No names: Jennifer Lawrence as Her and Javier Bardem as Him in “Mother!”

Him (that’s the character’s name) spends much of the film craving adoration from his fans, even when they abuse his hospitality. At a pivotal point late in the film, when Lawrence’s character after giving birth demands that Bardem send away the hordes of people who are camped outside her door, He has a telling response: He wants them there. In Aronofsky’s telling, God is a vain, flawed showman who keeps creating various worlds in hopes of getting things right.

True story: When I was of Sunday School age, I’d often ask hard questions of my (likely beleaguered feeling) teachers. One of them was this: Did God really create all of us just to adore Him? And if so, doesn’t that make Him a little suspect? I mean, if you create someone to love you and they do, then that isn’t real love, right?

I’ve had a lot of fun reading reviews and interviews after watching the film, and I often find myself arguing back. Example: Brody, in his New Yorker takedown of Aronofsky, scoffs at the way the crowds treat the baby born in the film poorly (actually, it’s a horrific moment), which hardly suggests the infant’s divinity. But in this outlandish extended metaphor of a film, perhaps it’s a commentary on the way organized religion misappropriated and, yes, even violated the original intent of Jesus, who wanted to overthrow the status quo, installing him instead as figurehead of the establishment. Dostoevsky wrote of this phenomenon in one of his most famous passages in “The Brothers Karamozov” when he tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor who would rather put a resurrected 15th century Jesus to death than risk rocking the foundations of the Church.

That’s my interpretation, then. And I’m right. (Just kidding.)

The far more important thing, however, is that it’s been a while since a film so teased, tormented and even trampled me. And for that I’m happy. “Mother!” is currently bombing at the box office, so if you want to see it in the theater, you’ll have to hurry. And bring along an open mind.

 


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

6 thoughts on “One confusing ‘Mother!’”

  1. I enjoyed your article. I still don’t plan to see the film. I already have pretty firm ideas about worshiping a god who created people to love him and then makes them suffer because (fill in the blank). I’m not going to waste any more time thinking about that particular concept.

  2. Donald,
    I loved the film and, a person who grew up in the church and also spent time dealing with difficult realities, I found the “narssictic God” perspective the most spot on. I found the idea that “God calls his people to worship” the breaking point for me (one of many, in the end).

    This film is a great conversation starter and was perfectly uncomfortable.

    Cheers,
    Travis

    PS – Love that I can still follow your voice and perspective from afar.

    1. Nice to hear from you, Travis! As I think about it more, perhaps the most original/creative/subversive declaration made by Aronofsky is that the Creator can simply trash everything and start again. It goes against the whole idea of humankind as having some sort of special place in the universe. Kind of an ego-buster, you could say.

  3. I just read your intro in order to avoid any spoilers–I’ll come back to this after I’ve seen the film. But the shocking thing to me is: Rex Reed is still alive?

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