mother! is so on-the-nose that the marketing campaign built on mystery makes complete sense: a single scene from the movie would give away the allegory, and therefore the entire movie … because mother! isn’t an original story. It’s the foundational story of Western canon retold, a CliffsNotes version of Christianity with the added benefit of secular hindsight. It exhibits strong technical mastery but weak storytelling. Art, sure, but a unique and fleeting experience that seems destined to be remembered as a minor movie from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) and not much more.
Jennifer Lawrence is Her, who lives in a house with Him (Javier Bardem) — a house she built and maintains around the room where he writes. He lost everything when the house burnt down before he met Her; she has given him new life, and room to create. His art, and recognition, is everything to him. She is fine with the world she has built for them.
Their paradise is lost when two strangers played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, followed by their sons, followed by …
You know this story or at least the contours of it. The question then becomes just how far Aronofsky chooses to take it.
mother! is not bad bad, it just isn’t very interesting. A thriller without tension isn’t very thrilling, and a horror film without real emotional stakes isn’t very horrifying. There’s some existential horror in mother!‘s theological musings, but again, investing yourself in the dark hole at the heart of the nature of human religion requires a heart with which to empathize.
Despite a standout performance by Lawrence, she’s never more than a metaphor. We only ever know Her and Him as allegorical figures, never as characters with any sort of relationship to the world beyond them. As a thought experiment it’s fine. As a story? It even fails as a morality play.
It’s possible to look at the story from another angle, certainly. Fellow MFJ writer Nick Rogers refers to mother! as “Choose-Your-Own-Allegory.” But I don’t feel many of those interpretations take much unpacking, aside from those who see this as an autobiographical confessional about Aronofsky’s romantic troubles and / or artistic hubris. Honestly, I give next to zero shits about his life, and find that reading of the film even less interesting than the clear environmentalist and agnostic interpretations.
There is one way in which mother! thrills me, and that is as a companion to Aronofsky’s far superior Noah. The brilliance of Noah is that it used action tropes to explore Aronofsky’s personal questions about God and Man. The story of Noah and his family, though, made it human, while including God as a character. It played a biblical story as straightforward as possible without feeling cynical or labored. mother! is an addendum, an explainer, an explicator of all of its predecessor’s clever and genuine musings on faith.
Audiences have given mother! a despicably low score in post-screening tests — among only a handful of films to yield an F. It’s not hard to see why. There isn’t much to the movie beyond the simple experience of it, and those not attentive to its metaphors might find some of the imagery incredibly offensive. To say this movie is not for everyone is not condescending; you just must be prepared to watch it operate on a different level than most of the films you’ll see this year. Not necessarily better or worse, just … different.
There were times during mother! where I was really digging it, but in the end I walked away with the feeling that the movie ultimately never amounted to anything. As the third act mounts, it becomes depressingly clear that the entire movie is more or less told within the first 10 minutes, that the sense of escalation is all entirely artificial. Aronosfky had a title and an idea but never found a story to go with it. He understands abstractly that one key of religion is storytelling but never manages, at least here, to harness that power for his own film.
mother! is beautifully shot and acted but empty as Eden after the fall.