If you’re going to see Darren Aronofsky’s newest film mother!, released this weekend, the prolific director would like to apologize in advance. “You’re laughing and smiling now,” he said, addressing the audience of Radio City Music Hall before the New York City screening last Wednesday, “but you’re all going to really hate me in about an hour and a half. So the first thing I want to do is apologize.”
mother! is a major mindfuck—not unlike Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan—but this time, he’s gone much darker. It’s a psychological-thriller bordering on horror. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the main character, said her first reaction to seeing the film was that “we took it too far.” But some people, like producer Scott Franklin, are calling it Aronofsky’s best work to date.
Jennifer Lawrence plays mother, a devoted wife rebuilding her husband’s house after it burned down. But her husband (Javier Bardem), known only as Him, doesn’t seem to appreciate her efforts, displacing his frustration with his work onto her. A random man (Ed Harris) shows up, and Him is way more interested in welcoming this guest than spending time with his wife. So she’s a little miffed. The plot unfolds, and mother’s annoyance turns into anger, which turns into something considerably more—growing as exponentially as the incoming guests, who have little consideration for her “paradise” of a house.
The film is shot entirely in tight, point-of-view, and over the shoulder shots, and largely centers around mother, so we can’t help but to identify with her. We feel her emotion just as strongly. (It also has the effect of making you entirely uncomfortable after watching mostly close-ups for two hours. But, really, that’s just one thing on a long list of reasons why this movie will make you uncomfortable.)
I didn’t catch all of the subtext of mother! while first watching, but after some reflection (and, okay, some reading online), it was as clear as the crystal sitting in Him’s office.
Here’s your obligatory spoiler warning.
mother! is a retelling of the bible, from creation in the Torah, through the New Testament, all the way to present day. mother is Mother Earth, the embodied spirit of the actual earth, the house. Him is God. man is Adam, woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) is Eve (and maybe part snake). After you get that, it’s not too hard to piece everything together. When man is throwing up in the toilet, with a bad scar under his shoulder? That’s when God takes Adam’s rib to create Eve. When man and woman destroy Him’s precious crystal? That was Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. When the funeral guests destroy the sink and waterlog the house? That’s the great flood. And the realizations goes on and on and on, to the creation of the New Testament, the birth and death of Jesus, and Christianity’s followers eating the body and blood of Christ. Literally. All of these moments that at the time feel like, what the hell? later make total sense. “Later” just might be, you know, a couple days later.
With this movie, this allegory, Aronofsky comments on humanity’s destructive nature. We’ve misappropriated the teachings of God, believing we have ownership of his words as well as all of his other creations. So, in addition to organized religion, the film is also largely about the environment. Aronofsky was inspired to write the film by the events of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, so it’s just horribly coincidental and timely that it was released in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma.
Aronofsky has made films with similar messages before, but this one really has no happy ending. After watching, I canceled my plans, needing to be alone for a couple hours. But still—you should see this movie. Ignore the fact that it got a record F CinemaScore rating, and its opening weekend returns were dismal. It’s genius. And anyway, Aronofsky is sorry. He might have some strong feelings about religion, but he is Jewish, and the High Holidays are coming up. I’ll find a way to forgive him.
Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.