Mother! is going to cut audiences straight down the middle. There will be people who think they understand exactly what it’s trying to say — even if those people might never agree on what the statement actually is — and there will be those who see it as a self-indulgent mess that abuses biblical imagery as a shortcut to meaning.
I know exactly what Mother! is about, and I know I’m wrong.
This is what Mother! is trying to say
Mother! is the story of a man and a woman living in an old, labyrinthine house that was burnt down in some unknown point in the past. She is trying to turn the house into a “paradise” where they can both be happy.
She is desperately in love with the man, and seems to take great care to imagine what he needs before providing it. The man seems to be a poet who once achieved greatness, and is now defining himself by his inability to write anything else. He seems to love the woman, but is dismissive of her efforts to the point of obliviousness. Her distress is, at first, marked only by small grimaces and furrowed brows. Then other people arrive, sense her lack of agency, and take advantage of it.
But that’s not what the film is about.
The rest of this piece contains full spoilers for the film.
Mother! is an attempt to grapple with the often invisible emotional labor women so often provide in traditional relationships, and how often that work is both dehumanizing and unappreciated by the man she’s trying to support.
The poet is caring in short bursts, but he’s never there when it counts. He can throw someone against a wall, but he’s emotionally unavailable to the person who invests so much in him. The adoration of others is always more important to him than the love of his wife. The emotional energy she gives him is used to please others so they can better feed his ego.
And then a war happens, I think? The final act certainly gave the studio enough material to sell Mother! as a horror film instead of a slow-burning meditation.
Things get pretty hazy when his latest poem — which he is able to write only after the pair have angry, questionably consensual sex — brings throngs of followers and acolytes to their house.
The woman, clearly pregnant at this point, is shoved aside, literally and figuratively, so the poet can become a savior. This is when she gives birth to their son, an event that takes place in a barricaded room as the “fans” loot the house. The baby is then taken from her and given to the people to be adored, and is ultimately torn apart and eaten.
This still supports my thesis. Stick with me.
The Christian imagery here is a ruse, a disguise for what’s actually going on. He only cares about his son because the baby can be used to gain more power and attention from his disciples. This is a common situation in families with this dynamic; the children are lost completely in the struggle between the man’s ego and the woman’s need to please him.
It would be one thing if this all happened subconsciously. If the man wasn’t aware of what was going on, of how much his wife gave up so he could be focused and creative instead of being distracted by worldly concerns.
But it’s made clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and the woman is thrown away when she has nothing left to give except the ability for him to replace her with another woman who can then be used and ultimately discarded.
It’s sick because this is a common dynamic, and it’s rarely discussed in pop culture. It’s also not what the film is about.
This is what the Atlantic has to say on the topic:
Lawrence’s character has no obvious counterpart in either testament; instead, she’s some sort of analogue for Mother Earth, or Gaia, an embodiment of nature and creation, with the house (which slowly gets destroyed by its callous houseguests) a stand-in for the planet itself. Or you could see her as the warmer, welcoming half of the Godhead, with Bardem representing the aloof, unknowable half. There are vague concepts of reincarnation and renewal in the film’s ending, too, more reflective of Hinduism or Buddhism than anything Judeo-Christian.
Here’s Vanity Fair:
“I gave you everything,” Lawrence tells her husband. “I have nothing left to give.”
When Bardem points out that she still has a heart, she gives him permission to take that too. He plunges his hand into her chest cavity and pulls out her last bit of life.
“Here’s a tree that gives up everything for the boy,” Aronofsky said of the parallel. “That’s pretty much the same thing.”
In a nod to Hindu religion — which states that God created and destroyed the universe infinite times — the cycle begins again: ashes, crystal, a new home, a new Mother!
Here’s Jennifer Lawrence herself:
I have different answers. One of them in short is: the movie was called Day Six [on set]: it could be about the creation and the end of the universe. You have the creation of man and women and then the corruption of man and woman and then overpopulation and creation and religion and so on and so forth.
This is what writer and director Darren Aronofsky said about the film’s meaning:
This space intentionally left blank.
Yeah, I’m not going to go there. Aronofsky has said a lot about the movie, but he also claims to have written it in five days and he cast his girlfriend in the lead role of a film that at least in part deals with treating women as disposable objects who exist only to take care of you while you create art.
I’m not particularly convinced Aranofsky knows exactly what he’s trying to say or how much of himself he put into the film. It feels too primal and immediate to be as divorced from his own mind and insecurities as he may want us to believe.
Besides, his intent is completely meaningless when you’re in the theater. Mother! is visually lush while never shying away from bruising the audience, and Lawrence exhibits a complete devotion to the role in a way that you feel in your bones. The film is layered with allegory, biblical allusions and primal visuals. It’s meant to make you feel something, even if that thing is disgust.
I’ve discussed the film’s ultimate meaning with a number of people since I left the theater last night, and everyone has a different idea. Even more impressive is the fact that the text supports their interpretation; this is a movie that holds up a mirror instead of giving you a pat explanation.
It’s Aronofsky’s best work, and I know exactly what it’s trying to say, even if I know for a fact that I’m wrong.
But then again, so is he.