In creative workshops and critiques across campus there is one watch phrase: critique the work for what it is, not what you want it to be. I suppose that was my mistake with mother!, the new psychological horror film directed by Darren Aronofosky. I saw it hinting at themes I’d never seen explored before in a mainstream film, and was disappointed when it turned out to just be another environmentalist cautionary tale.
The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as the character Mother, a young housewife married to Javier Bardem’s character, simply referred to as Him, an acclaimed poet who seems to have reached a level of stardom usually reserved for movie stars. Okay, I’ll suspend my disbelief. Mother spends her days renovating their house while Him struggles with writers’ block. Their tranquil life is interrupted when Him invites a strange man, and later his wife, to stay with them without asking Mother. What follows can only be described as wild. There’s a murder (well, several), a religious cult formed around Him, cannibalism, a literal war zone in their entranceway, and a refugee camp in their living room, and that’s only scratching the surface.
Most people seem to be taking issue with the fact that [spoiler alert] a newborn baby gets his neck snapped and eaten as communion by the crowd that killed him. That’s not my issue with the film. Aronofosky wanted to drive home a point about the cruelty of humanity, and babies getting brutally murdered in war zones every day in the name of religion. The moment his neck snaps and the feelings that surround it are amongst the only moments of realism in the last 30 minutes of the film.
My problem with the film comes at the very end, in Mother’s parting lines to her husband. The first, right before she attempts a murder-suicide, is “I gave you everything, and you gave it away.” The issue here is simple: it got the travesty of pop music – “Last Christmas” – stuck in my head, something I was hoping to avoid till at least October. The second, whispered to Him shortly before she fades out of existence, is “What hurts the most is that I wasn’t enough” (or something to that effect; I admit I do not have the movie memorized after one sitting). To understand why this line hurt me the most we have to back up a bit.
What pulled me into mother! in the first two-thirds of the film was the constant anxiety. The movie was shot on film, giving it a grainy, dreamlike quality. Most of the shots are kept tightly framed around Mother, giving you the feeling that you’re not being allowed to see the full picture and keeping you on the edge of your seat, constantly tensed for a jump scare that never comes. The sounds are often distorted, and people’s voices fade in and out, creating a sense of being isolated and unable to keep up with the events unfolding around Mother.
All of these details put the viewer firmly in Mother’s point of view, which is vital for the movie’s success, because, as the movie moved along, my mind kept trying to claw its way out of her perspective. I don’t want to be sympathetic to Mother. She yells at her husband for taking a dying man to the hospital and comforting his grieving parents. She tries to kick a kid out of her house for trying to use her bathroom. If these events were told from anyone else’s perspective she would seem like a heartless b****, and my social conditioning bucked the idea of finding her sympathetic.
But, as I spent time in Mother’s head I realized that her reactions and emotions were totally reasonable. I, along with all the other characters in the movie, was expecting her to take care of everything and not have any emotional needs of her own. I thought this was a fascinating commentary on what we as a society expect from people, and women in particular. While her circumstances are extreme, I can see my experience as a woman in Mother’s experience. The movie forced me to consider that maybe the expectations I put on other women and myself are unreasonable.
This is just one example of the social dynamics mother! subtly explores in the first hour and a half of the film. The full range is too expansive to cover here, but mother! touches on interesting questions around celebrity, the creative process, and love, to name a few. The movie is divided up into three “acts” and by the time I finished the second I was sold. Then, things started going off the rails.
Like so many horror movies, mother! jumped the shark in the last thirty minutes. Some time around the World War I-esque artillery fire in their dining room, my suspension of disbelief fell apart, and by the time we found out [another big spoiler] Him is immortal and he and Mother are trapped in an endless loop, I was struggling not to crack up. The third act completely abandons the subtlety of the first two thirds, and drops all nuance in favor of a ham-fisted hybrid allegory of the “rape” of mother earth and Biblical imagery.
This brings us to the problem of Mother’s claim that what hurts the most is that she wasn’t enough for Him. After all the work the movie does to deconstruct the domestic goddess, the creative muse archetype, and half a dozen other boxes female characters (and people) get shoved into, that line boils her entire character down to “just want[ing] to please Him.” The worst thing isn’t the entrails of her dead baby strewed about their house. It isn’t her own charred body. It’s that she didn’t please her man.
If you’re in the market for a visually and auditorily stunning movie about the cruelty of humanity and the destruction of Mother Earth, mother! is 100 percent for you. If you want to watch a film about the ego of the male artist, buckle up. But if you’re looking for something new and layered, make sure you leave early.