If there’s anything readily obvious about Darren Aronofsky latest film, mother!, it’s the movie’s ability to divide opinion. When the credits first rolled after its premier at the Venice Film Festival, half the audience booed while half gave it a standing ovation. And yet for all the strong emotion it has engendered, the film remains deeply misunderstood by critics and viewers.
It is not, for instance, a “vehemently exaggerated satire on the burdens of fame,” as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody would have it. It is not a home-invasion psycho-thriller à la Rosemary’s Baby, as many of the pre-release promotional materials were leading us to believe. And it is certainly not “torture porn,” as National Review’s Kyle Smith deemed it in a particularly histrionic review. What it is, however, is an impressionistic, biblically inspired allegory for the drama of creation. And this is not just my own reading; the movie honestly invites us to consider it theologically. Aronofsky said as much in a Reddit forum with fans, admitting that once he “decided to turn to the stories of the Bible,” he had a great “breakthrough” in writing the script. Moreover, Aronofsky isn’t simply hijacking the characters of Genesis (the creator God, the created Earth, Man, and Woman) or its plot points (an idyllic beginning shattered by fratricide giving way to an apocalyptic reckoning) for the sake of telling some other story. Rather, he’s unironically taking up those characters and that plot and playing with them from the inside. This is the source both of the movie’s power, and of the prevalent misunderstandings inflicted upon it.
The film is divided rather neatly into two parts, the first of which focuses on the small, domestic drama between Him (Javier Bardem) and Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). The couple live in beautiful, secluded house. Him, a poet, seeks vainly for inspiration; Mother, a literal homemaker, lovingly restores the grand Victorian mansion, describing it as a “paradise” for the lonely couple. (Indeed, the home’s Edenic qualities are hard to miss.) Yet if we’re following the source material, the beginning of the film takes place before the sixth day. God is alone with his creation; man has not yet intruded upon the scene. Mother, for her part, cherishes this isolation; the poet, we sense, is agitated by it.
Before long, Man (Ed Harris) arrives at their door seeking hospitality, which the poet is eager to give, claiming Man’s presence is good for his creativity. Mother, however, is skeptical: She’s not so keen on opening her home to this mysterious stranger. Indeed, Man seems off somehow—awkward, unsure of himself. Nevertheless, the poet extends the Man every courtesy, drinking with him and even offering to let him stay the night. As it turns out, Man is kept awake with a fit of asthma (and an open wound near his rib…). Then his wife, Woman (played by Michele Pfeiffer with characteristic panache), shows up too.
Here is Aronofsky’s first brilliant subversion of the biblical source myth. If she could, might the spirit of the Earth, God’s first creation, object to the entry of mankind into existence, which must have seemed a rude intrusion upon a heretofore peaceful reality? If we indulge a healthy bit of anthropomorphizing (which is, after all, the point of allegory), mightn’t we easily imagine Mother (i.e., Mother Earth) to be jealous—even suspicious—of the attention God showers upon His new creatures? The juxtaposition of Lawrence’s Mother and Pfeiffer’s Woman is particularly sharp: Where Mother is reserved, chaste, and demure, Woman is forward, crass, and bristling with unencumbered sexual energy. She guzzles vodka, comments on her hostess’s unsexy lingerie, and paces the house like it’s her own. In a cruel reversal, we learn that Mother isn’t (yet) a mother, though she very much wants to be, while Woman casually complains about how her several children have been a drag on her social life. Two tropes of femininity emerge here and motherhood is made to seem arbitrary, an unearned advantage of the acquisitive “bad woman” who flaunts her fecundity in front of the accommodating but barren “good woman.”
As if to drive home this point, two of Woman’s children soon show up (played by real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), fighting bitterly over an inheritance. Anger quickly turns to wrath and the younger brother is killed by his sibling, with blood spilling on Mother’s painstakingly refinished floorboards (where it will stay the rest of the film, crying out for vengeance). From here things spiral further out of control. Countless additional guests stream into the house for the younger son’s impromptu wake. They drink, they sneak off into Mother’s bedroom, they break things. Mother’s fears prove well founded as each new guest seems ruder, crueler, even more violent than the last. This sequence comes to a screeching halt when a sink is dislodged from the wall, causing the pipes to burst and prompting Mother to cast out all the “guests” in a fit of rage. A great flood, then, wipes the slate clean—finally Mother and the poet are left alone again.
This whole sequence captures rather nicely the sweep of antediluvian salvation history. But it does so from the point of view of nonhuman creation. This change of perspective is as subtle as it is subversive, since we find ourselves sympathizing with Lawrence’s put-upon hostess. “Throw the bums out!” we want to scream, without realizing that we are those bums—boorish, brutal, and brash
The film’s second half jumps ahead several months (eons?). Mother is very pregnant, the poet has written his masterpiece, and the house has been put back in order. It doesn’t take long, however, for the poet’s fans—inspired by his latest work—to show up on his doorstep. They want to see him, to hear him, to touch him. Mother is again distressed, and He again insists on her patience, her understanding. Somewhere around this point Aronofsky flips a switch and allows the immensity of the metaphor to run wild: In an extended climax the film gets louder, bloodier, and more thunderous than anything contained in its first half. The fans form a cult (led by Kristen Wiig as a cold-blooded publicist) devoted to the poet’s image; it takes over the house, clashing violently with police and locking other houseguests in makeshift jails. Here the movie becomes a sensory assault—delirium mixes with brutality in a way that makes it difficult to watch. Mother takes refuge in the poet’s study—the place of creation—and gives birth to a son. Again she begs the poet to send the guests away, but he won’t. Instead he presents them with their infant son, who they lift up and exalt before snapping his neck and feasting on his body. The poet is distraught but again pleads with Mother—We must find a way to forgive them. But by this point Mother’s heart has been hardened, literally turned to stone, and she will have none of it. She goes on a rampage, killing as many guests as she can before exploding the whole house, and herself, in a cathartic inferno.
It’s the second half of the movie that’s caused outrage among viewers. People report walking out at this point, disgusted by the increasingly ludicrous images of violence and destruction. As Lawrence herself said to the New York Times, “The images [at that point] are burning so bright, and you’re left with that feeling, that visceral feeling” after leaving the theater. But how different are these images, really, from those we see each day on the news? Dead refugee children lie face-down in the dirt, religious extremists throw gay men from rooftops, madmen and tyrants threaten nuclear ruin—are these not the same proofs of man’s native violence that so scandalize Mother? Isn’t she justified in wanting these self-destructive clodhoppers out of her house? And isn’t the unfathomable patience of the poet a source of scandal when looked at from the third-person perspective?
Even a passing familiarity with the biblical source material reveals the resonance of Aronofsky’s nightmare vision here. The story of salvation is a crescendo: Man’s abuse of freedom is again and again met by God with clemency, with renewed offers of covenant, until that definitive act of sacrifice in which the sinless Son becomes a victim. Hans Urs von Balthasar described this drama as an “ever-intensifying rhythm” that reveals “both God’s infinite power and his powerlessness; he cannot be God in any other way but in this kenosis” that gives to the point of death. Sacrifice here is not what God does, but what God is. There is something of this God in Bardem’s poet, who won’t turn away the houseguests but instead repeatedly tries to appeal to their love of him. And there is something of this same self-gift in Mother’s devotion to Him, which winds up killing her: The film ends with Mother literally giving up her heart to the poet, which he will keep on his shelf as inspiration after she’s gone. In the end, the radical suggestion of mother! is that the “ever-intensifying rhythm” of sin and forgiveness upon which our faith is built looks less like a cycle of love and forgiveness than it does some absurd sadomasochistic farce. In Aronofsky’s deft hands, our whole biblical narrative is turned on its head: God’s generosity becomes God’s callous self-obsession, the forbearance of the “good woman” becomes the source of her self-harm, and the son’s sacrifice leads not to redemption but to ruin.
Now, Aronofsky isn’t doing theology, of course. There are good and rather straightforward reasons why his metaphor doesn’t ultimately hold. For one, God’s love is no zero-sum commodity. The superabundant economy of gift in which God is always moving would never force God into the position of Hamlet-like indecision in which the poet finds himself in the final half-hour. Further, the distance between Creation and creatures is perhaps too wide here; the antagonism between Mother and the houseguests is possible only if they really are strangers to one another, rather than being specifically intended for loving communion. Then again, there are less elegant metaphors for sin than this: behaving as an unruly visitor to a house in which you’re a guest.
But actually to carry on with these sorts of counter-arguments would be churlish: Aronofsky’s standard is not Christian orthodoxy. The salient point, rather, is that this movie cannot be made sense of without reference to its particular theodramatic imaginary, which is self-evidently biblical. Sure, mother! may subvert that imaginary in a perfectly postmodern way, bending and breaking the categories of the original text, but to do so only underlines the prevailing power of the imaginary repertoire in question. Christian viewers of this film may find it repulsive, but, if they do, it should not be for its vivid depictions of violence. Rather, the film seems a haunting (because plausible) reminder of how easily the Christian narrative can be redeployed to new and destabilizing uses. And quite apart from its slippery rhetorical maneuvers, the film dares to depict what our sinful nature looks like—to dramatize the violence we do to creation itself in the course of our absurd history of sin.
Aronofsky produced the script in what he called a five-day “fever dream,” inspired by a particularly potent devil’s brew of anxiety, guilt, and anger: “All those ideas, the intensity of all those ideas, just sort of flooded out of me,” he told Vulture recently. It’s noteworthy, I think, that when Aronofsky drew upon his significant creative reserves to give voice to these feelings, he went back to a very old story. It’s perhaps even more noteworthy, though less encouraging, that so many who view this movie will fail to recognize his source material.