Writer-director Darren Aronofsky's lastest film has engendered extreme reactions from both filmgoers and critics. And by "both filmgoers," I mean both of them: mother! fared poorly at the box office this past weekend, bringing in a mere $7.5 million, which isn't enough to keep the average Hollywood A-lister in Zoloft. But anyone familiar with my approach to film criticism knows I prefer to put the best construction on things, to give artists the benefit of the doubt, and to seek the "teachable moment." You know, that temptation to indulge in pious eisegesis when confronted with a narrative bereft of even a hint of a gracious God or good taste. So here goes.
mother! opens on Jennifer Lawrence in flames, her hair a ragged mess, her face the color of pewter, a tear rolling down her charred cheek. For a moment the image put me in mind of that old commercial featuring a Native American weeping because some numbskull has tossed litter from his car window, desecrating the land.
Only Mother is weeping over a desecration far more egregious than empty Pepsi bottles and used Whopper wrappers being strewn like confetti.
As our story begins, the seared remains of our Oscar™ winner and her immediate environment are magically reborn into a magnificent mansion out in the middle of nowhere. Room after room, oak beam after oak beam, are notch tongued and grooved to perfection. Mother, wearing a diaphanous nightie (this is a horror flick of sorts, and nothing good comes of young women in their unmentionables in horror flicks), is walking the house, surveying her handiwork. See, she has single-handedly rebuilt this manor from mere ashes. She is the Mother of the Phoenix she shares with her husband, the Poet (Javier Bardem). Only something is a little weird this morning, as if the house isn’t quite itself, as if it were a living, breathing thing that was suffering a bit of dyspepsia . . . or mourning sickness.
As for the Poet, well, he has writer’s block, and you know what that means. (Just ask Wendy Torrance.)
Suddenly, Ed Harris knocks at the door. Nothing good can come from Ed Harris knocking at your door. Here he’s a doctor who says he’d been told the house was a B&B. Oh boy was he misinformed. Actually, he’s lying, as he is a Misery-inducing fanboy who travels with the Poet’s photo in his grip.
Well, the Poet takes to the doctor like Bela Lugosi to Ed Wood. He finds the hacking mess—the Doctor smokes because, presumably, he went to medical school in 1955—to be fascinating and filled with enough colorful tales to set the Poet’s creative juices flowing. So Walt Witless invites this perfect stranger to stay the night, without consulting Mother (There’s a lot of that.)
The very next day, who should arrive but Mrs. Doctor (Michelle Pfeiffer). Soon we have the Bickersons roaming about as if they owned the joint, to Mother’s great distress and confusion. (Who are these terrible people? Why would her husband allow these Pushy McPushfaces into their Paradise?)
Mrs. Doctor is an intrusive and entitled sort who quizzes Mother as to why she doesn’t have kids. Are there problems in the bedroom? Oooh, can I look in here, the Poet’s study? she asks without waiting for an answer.
No! Mother cries. No one goes in there, the Poet’s sanctuary, without the Poet’s being present. That’s where he keeps . . . the diamond. A mysterious fire had reduced the Poet’s previous domicile to ashes, consuming absolutely everything. But amid those ashes a massive and gorgeous diamond was found. Heat and pressure and all that. It is the Poet’s treasure, his prized possession, a source of renewal and hope. Moreover, it was from these very same ashes that Mother rebuilt the Poet’s home. That’s how much she loves.
But given the restive nature of the Guests from Hell, wouldn't you know they disobey the command not to touch the "hope" diamond and drop the stupid thing, shattering it into a million pieces. Well, that’s it for the Poet. No good deed and all that. He boards up the Study and bars Adam and Eve, er, Doctor and Mrs. Doctor, from the sanctuary forever.
Hello! If it isn’t the Doctor and Mrs. Doctor’s two sons, who have been bickering over the Doctor’s will. (That smoker’s cough is worse than it sounds.) Before long Cain kills Abel and hightails it to Nod. Abel’s blood soaks deeply into the very floorboards of Paradise, even as Mother tries to cover the signs of this really unoriginal sin with a white area rug. It still bleeds through, however. You don’t cover the blood. The blood covers you.
Mother is unsurprisingly horrified at the destruction and disorder that have been unleashed in her Paradise. Why, why would the Poet allow it? Why is he more concerned about enduring these desperately disobedient wackos and their intrafamilial squabbles than caring for her?
Just when you think things can’t get worse, they get worse. After all, you can’t invite guests whose one son murders the other son in your house without also accommodating a funeral. Soon the mansion is overrun with mourners. They’re hanging out in every nook and cranny, making out in the master bedroom, and sitting on the sink. “Don’t sit on the sink. It’s isn’t braced!” Mother warns. Does anyone listen?
Of course not. The sink is soon sunk and water gushes from shattered pipes. A flood! Out! bellows Mother. Get out! Thrown from Mother's Paradise is this motley crew of degenerates. But once Mother and the Poet are alone again, her anger ignites another kind of spark in the Poet, resulting in pregnancy. See? Abel’s murder and some extensive real estate damage are soon superseded by new life. And what do you know? The Poet finds new creative life as well, new inspiration, and dashes off what is the most ridiculous notion in this entire two-hour Petite Guinol: a bestselling poem.
Just as life is getting to be good again, just as order and beauty are restored to Paradise, just as a pregnant Mother blissfully awaits the arrival of her child, the Poet’s publishing success ushers in hordes of media and a farrago of fans, who barge into the house and begin to treat the Poet as a god. They make off with bundles of bric-a-brac, gaggles of gewgaws—all “relics” to be treasured. They beg to be blessed by the Poet, then mimic the blessing ritual as a "cult" is born.
For reasons only the psychology department of Johns Hopkins can discern, Mother’s creation soon becomes a literal battlefield, with soldiers breaking through barricades and revolutionaries shooting dissidents and explosions and mindless movie-war mayhem. More and more of the couple’s Paradise is reduced to ruins.
But hope is reborn as Mother gives birth. It’s a boy. (But you saw that coming.) Once again, life in the face of death! But before long, that Life is sacrificed on the altar of the Father’s fame, in a scene that will go down in film history as a failed attempt to outrage the three people sitting in the theater, two of whom were texting “Why didn’t I go see It?”
Then things get wacky.
What to make of this monstrosity? (Lest you think this prejudicial, I am using "monstrosity" in the Latin sense of "monstrare," meaning to show or point out, like "Hey, look at that thing over there, that's coming to kill us and eat our brains.") A quick look at pull quotes from critics will show that mother! has been hailed by some as "truly maginificent" and "an urgent warning and a roar into the abyss," while others have dismissed it as "the worst film of the year, maybe the century." NRO’s Kyle Smith has gleaned here a grotesque anti-Catholic screed. I can certainly see why. There’s Christian imagery galore and more symbols and metaphors than you can choke a Tridentine John Bunyan with. The film does appear to be mocking such practices as the imposition of ashes and the veneration of icons, as well as dogmas such as the Virgin Birth and, most distastefully of all, Holy Communion.
But does Darren Aronofsky hate Catholicism with such ferocity that he is willing to throw away years of his life just to make mock of such an easy Hollywood target? Does he really believe that Christianity bears the brunt of the blame for the desecration of Creation and the havoc its heavenly minded soldiers of Christ have wrought? Maybe. Maybe he's bitter about how Noah was received by many Christian critics such that he sought revenge. And honestly, the "Old Testament God" doesn't come off much better. Played by Bardem as moody, spent, and artistically constipated, the deity's indifference to human suffering is something to witness, and the canard about cosmic child abuse is illustrated quite crudely.
Wait a minute: Could mother! really be about how the desecration of a pristine Christianity, symbolized by the nurturing, life-giving Mary figure, is our real problem? After all, the entire film is seen through Mother's POV. One could as easily say that mother! is the Mother of God’s version of redemption history, as she watches helplessly as her Son and the Creation he was meant to restore are defiled by sinful men. After all, it is Mother who calls "Apocalypse now!" not the Poet/Father or the Son. She is the one who unveils what sin has done to her Paradise.
Aronofsky himself has admitted that mother! is, at the very least, a hymn to Hollywood’s religion du jour, environmentalism, with Mother! Nature as the victim of an indifferent patriarchal narcissism. But if so, the theme of eternal recurrence, introduced at beginning and end, would appear to undercut it. If destruction results ultimately in renewal, if reincarnation or repristination is built into the thing, if it’s the Father’s Way, seeking ever-new inspiration from creative destruction, like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, well, then, what difference does one or two degrees Fahrenheit matter in the long run? (Directors are not always the best interpreters of their own work, if for no other reason than what they had in their head doesn't always translate to what we see on the screen.)
Maybe, maybe, this is a case of misdirection, and Aronofsky is really commenting on the collapse of his nine-year relationship with Rachel Weisz (which produced a son), his way of dramatizing what terrible things fame and celebrity do to a family, as well as, ironically, what good they can do for one’s creative afflatus?
I dunno. Pick one. At some point, a film that can mean so many different things probably doesn't mean anything at all. Certainly the film is too ridiculous to get worked up about. We’re in Fountain territory here. It's not so much Rosemary's Baby as a student-film mashup of The Exterminating Angel, Johnny Got His Gun, The Day After Tomorrow, and Hail Mary, as directed by an enebriated Wes Craven. It's just impossible to take mother! as seriously as it takes itself; the burden would be unbearable. And the audience I saw it with seemed to agree, as it was laughing in all the wrong places, giggling when it should have been gasping.
Sure there are some effectively creepy performances by Harris, Pfieffer, and Bardem. And Jennifer Lawrence may steal Jamie Lee Curtis’s Scream Queen title. The washed-out colors of 1970s cinematography was a nice touch. But in the end I wish Aronofsky had tried to pull off, say, Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 2, and instead of satirizing the Inquisition as a failed exercise in interfaith relations, satirized how lovers of the Environment, lovers of Art, even lovers of the Divine, can get so fanatically worked up about the objects of their faith that they become agents of chaos who tear their idols, and themselves, apart.
More than a few critics have warned that this “is not a film for everyone.” I would go further and say it is not a film for anyone. This from an artist who has done much better work: Pi, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, and yeah, even Black Swan. In these films, Aronofsky's chief obsessions are more skillfully and artfully realized: stories about the search for the secret to Life and the antidote for Death, sin and redemption, the price of perfection and flying too close to the sun, and our capacity for self-delusion.
mother! is certainly not the “fever dream” some of Aronofsky’s admirers are casting it as. It’s more like the afterglow of a Chipotle Salmonella Special, which has produced more profound religious experiences than you can shake a prescription at.
Trust me on that one.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of ISI Books and Modern Age.
Complement with Jane Clark Scharl on the meaning of The Man in the High Castle, Dr. Stanley Williams on how to change the world through storytelling, and Dwight Longenecker on why you need to read poetry.