Any piece of art is an argument. Some are well-defined. Some are incomplete. Some are surprising, in good ways and bad. In fact, most films that get made have very comprehensible philosophies. Even terrible movies are capable of having some ethos. As amateurish and unintentionally hilarious as a dud like Birdemic: Shock and Terror is, the film is a pro-environmentalism homage to Hitchcock that is also ineptly made. Yet, sometimes certain projects take on entire philosophies that may be completely unintentional. American Beauty is a film that tries to be about openness to life, and whose amor fati approach would be more inspiring, if Alan Ball and Sam Mendes were more aware of the white, upwardly-mobile cast of privileged characters really is, and how trivial their ennui is. The effectiveness of an argument often comes down to control and clarity of expression, which, given the meticulous attention demanded in a film’s production, is a tightrope act.
By this metric, mother!, always feels like one misstep away from disaster, just barely not falling apart. This is meant in the best way possible, because mother!, for all of Darren Aronofsky’s thoughts on cults of personality and religiosity, is a film that sneaks up on a person, deriving power, much like Javier Bardem’s writer at the center of the picture, from unwavering commitment to the cause. Aronofsky is no stranger to stories of absolute descent and dissolution, but none of his films are quite as nightmarish and frenetic as mother!. mother! is a film that doesn’t just get into one’s head; mother! is a film that gets under the skin, and shakes a person.
mother! is the story of the titular mother (Jennifer Lawrence, doing her best work since her breakthrough performance in Winter’s Bone), and her husband (Javier Bardem), an acclaimed poet, credited as Him. The couple lives in a large house, hidden deep in the country. Mother spends her time restoring this home, simultaneously doting on Him, who is in a fit of writer’s block. Then, one evening a man (Ed Harris) shows up on their doorstep, a mild-mannered doctor who, as we learn, is an avid fan of His work. Soon, the man is joined by a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the man’s assertive and judgmental wife. They are invited to stay by Him, in spite of mother’s protests. The guests take advantage of their hospitality, which grates on mother, but is excused by Him. Soon, the man’s and the woman’s story plays out as that of Adam and Eve, with their sons kicking down the doors, mirroring that of Cain and Abel. Mother can find no peace. When one stranger comes, they all come in droves.
As the first part of the film can be likened to a demented re-telling of the Old Testament, the second reads much like the aftermath of the New Testament, and Aronofsky ramps up a story of ominous intrigue into a bona fide hellscape. As the home is invaded by mobs of readers of His, His vanity, hidden under a thin façade of gratitude for his admirers, mother is boxed in further and further. Her home is abused and destroyed by everyone who enters, all of her work refurbishing the house undone with total indifference. Aronofsky’s greatest feat of mother! is capturing the most potent sense of claustrophobia. We follow mother almost exclusively, with Lawrence shot frequently in close-up, or over-the-shoulder. Not only is this a character that is trapped by uninvited visitors, but who’s trapped by her own home, as well.
mother! has been described as a religious allegory, though the film runs so much deeper. The themes of idolatry, of hypocrisy, of ideologically-driven mania, are not unique to something like Christianity. mother! is just as much about prophets and false gods as it is Trump supporters and Bernie bros, or about the need for industrialization, while savaging the planet. Moreover, mother! captures what being on the outside of any populist movement feels like. Aronofsky’s tight camera not only serves to confine Lawrence, but to let force us to be as helpless as she is. The greater cruelty of this is that the character of mother is not a passive character. She’s curious and assertive, wary of what people can do. Mother is the audience surrogate, showing just how shy Aronofsky isn’t to let the viewer in on his profound misanthropy.
Is mother! a cynical film? The short answer is yes. This is a film with so much venom for humanity, seething with resentment for society’s collective selfishness and carelessness towards the surrounding world, and that Aronofsky pisses on everyone with so much calculation and detail would alone make mother! a neat hat trick of a polemic. The slightly longer, trickier answer is that, for as much disdain and loathing drives mother!, and for as few explanations are offered, this is a film where hope can be found in nihilistic structure. mother! is a film that begins and ends in the same place. The first time we meet mother, she’s getting out of bed, looking for Him. Gingerly, she makes her way to the front door, looking out upon a lush vista, arboreal and alive. In that same shot, the camera whips around her, as He briskly approaches mother from behind, and ushers her back into the house. The film ends at the start, reminding us that the answer is as simple as leaving, running away if need be. mother! may not think that mother deserves to be punished by Him, the film posits that we don’t need to indulge him either.
mother! may not be plainspoken, but the film has no trouble getting to the point. This is a story told with a careful hand, applying pressure with astonishing precision. Do the ideas in mother! hold up? Are these philosophies agreeable? For as much as can be read into mother!, the very question of “Is this good?” seems as impossible as mother getting out of her house. Aronofsky can be polarizing, but seldom this divisive. Which is probably why mother! will endure, why future audiences will prod at the film’s larger assertions and symbolism, why this will birth fascinated and frustrated conversation in equal measure. If mother! is anything—more than a thoughtful, no-holds-barred fable of the inherent toxicity of humanity—it’s undeniably one of the most powerful, unrelenting film experiences one can endure.