mother! is the story of a cruel magician endlessly repeating a cycle of greed and resurrection. It is also the story of mankind raping and plundering the Earth for its own ends, because we feel it is in our nature. It is also the story of a husband who takes everything from his wife, her love, her kindness, her womb, her sanity, her home, and gives it freely to those around them so they will love him. It is also the tale of the biblical Book of Genesis, complete with red-haired Cain slaying his brother Abel. It is also the story of a Poet who soaks up all the wonders and misery of the world so that he may make Art, his one purpose, ostensibly to give back to the world, but truly only for himself. It is ALSO the story of how the audience of an artist can take possession of them, consume them entirely and leave nothing but their personal relationship to their art.
Darren Aronofsky tells all these stories at once, at times inelegantly, but always in a way that commands your attention. The shots are claustrophobic and the camera floating, the lens never leaving Jennifer Lawrence for more than a moment. But it is not about Lawrence’s character, the titular Mother. The film is about Javier Bardem’s Poet, seen at all times through the eyes of his wife, and his seemingly endless greed. It goes to grotesque extremes to show the pain and torment his greed inflicts upon her. To express how deep his need for her love and devotion to him, neither of which he ever intends to reciprocate. She is his muse, and he the artist. She is a means to an end, treasured and disposable.
The film shows you all of this as often as it tells you. Aronofsky is an incredibly deft filmmaker with an affinity for imbuing symbols and visual language with clear, overt meaning, but seems terrified that his audience will not Get It by the end of his film. In the final 20 minutes of its 2 hour runtime, characters explicitly state the film’s themes over and over, repeating in flatly-written dialogue everything you have just witnessed. Aronofsky’s tendency towards loquacious exposition serves well in biblical epics like Noah and The Fountain, but here feels garish, unnecessary. But perhaps subtlety and finesse aren’t necessary at all for a film like this.
If anything, mother! has cemented, for me, an undercurrent in all of Aronofsky’s films that I’d been unable to put my finger on. Pervading through the Gaian theory, the spiritualism, the calls to environmental action, the examinations of love, is a suffocating, all-encompassing sense of guilt. Male guilt. Guilt for mankind’s treatment of its world, guilt over men’s treatment of women, guilt over the Artist’s consumption and regurgitation of all around them. The author is well and truly dead, but I can’t help wonder how much of the process of making this was meant as catharsis for him personally, as an Artist who’s committed his life to his craft. There’s no small amount of amount of irony in him using the depiction of a woman’s ceaseless anguish to make his Great Art. A woman he’s now romantically involved with, no less. Hence the guilt?
mother! is a story of masculinity, of ego, and of guilt. As a viewing experience it is tense, distressing, and increasingly unpleasant to watch, exactly as Darren Aronofsky seems to have intended. Like all his work it’s a simple story old in excessive ways. If you’re already familiar with all the ways the Poet and those like him inflict torment on the women they profess to love, how the world seeks at all times to strip women of agency and destroy them at the slightest hint of protest, it could be a cathartic confirmation of your worst traumas. Or a horrific reminder of them. To others it may be a jarring push to reexamine your relationships with the environment and those around you. Or, to anyone, it might be a trite and overwrought parable feigning at a depth of storytelling that is simply not there, as you’ve found in the rest of Aronofsky’s films. Regardless, I hope Darren is able to sleep better after all that.