To try and explain Mother! is in and of itself a paradoxical (verging on self-defeating) feat, as the essence of the film is its maddening enigma, ruthless and negligent of its viewers’ general well-being and comfort during and after the film. I suppose this sour attempt at explanation is the nature of any movie review (though review may be somewhat of a liberal term here), but in this particular instance, a commentary on anything as dizzying as Mother! seems to verge dangerously on the edge of pure speculation. I believe whether you view this as a negative or positive reflection on the film is preference, but I find a cryptic movie such as Mother! gripping, fascinating, and undeniably traumatic.
The film follows the marriage of an unnamed couple played by Jennifer Lawrence, a timid, remarkably devoted wife, and Javier Bardem, a charismatic poet tortured by a crippling writer’s block. After The Poet’s childhood house burns down, Lawrence, who takes the title of Mother, works zealously on reconstruction in hopes The Poet’s inspiration will return. Once her work on the home is almost complete, an unnamed man arrives on the couple’s secluded country-home doorstep, and claims to be a lifelong fan of The Poet’s work. The Poet, ignorant of his wife’s hesitancy and charmed by the man’s adoration, invites him to stay at their house as long as he wishes.
The next day a woman arrives, apparently the wife of their visitor, and again The Poet immediately invites the woman to stay with them as long as she needs. The woman is hostile and rude to Mother, and despite Mother’s complaints about their presumptuous guests, The Poet insists they must show the man and woman generosity and kindness and continue to let them stay. In the following days, more and more people begin to suddenly barge in to see The Poet — sons, family members, distant acquaintances, and eventually, crowds. The hordes completely dismiss Mother’s quiet requests of tidiness, viewing her as an anal and overbearing nuisance.
Mother, distressed by the unexplained swarms of ruinous, greedy people and disregard of her husband, is left drowning in the literal destruction of her home, while her husband gladly does everything possible to please his adoring fans.
From there, the movie unravels in a series of emotionally gruelling and unapologetically disturbing scenes (which I will not elaborate on for risk of spoilers), masterfully captured with stunning, jarring cinematography. The harrowing anguish of Mother engrosses the audience through painstaking close-ups, accentuating wrinkle lines and nose flares, ceramic faultlines and rot.
Lawrence’s performance is exquisite, somehow managing to amplify the audience’s reception to Mother’s pain with a single twitch of her lip or catch of her breath. Bardem’s masterfully played role is maddening to witness, as his warm smile and gentle tone never allows the viewer to consider him a true “bad guy,” despite his ignorant behavior. His love for Mother is clearly genuine, but his love for the visitors overpowers that time and time again. How can you deem The Poet an antagonist when he does love Mother, as Aronofsky makes clear, but also loves the guests? How can you hate someone for loving? These are the questions Aronofsky so expertly forces his audience to face, consciously or otherwise.
By the end of the movie, I was flushed, exasperated, and thoroughly unsettled. When it first was released, Mother! inspired much debate, so I was aware that it dealt with complex allegory and biblical references, but by the end of the movie it was unclear to me exactly was the allegory was. I was familiar with a couple of Aronofsky’s films (Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream), so I expected a fever-dreamish experience, but I was not prepared for the shock Mother! left with me. It was not until a friend told me what she had researched that I understood the overarching message, and even then, it required numerous conversations for me to grasp the message.
Whether or not the overall haziness of the message is a flaw is up to the viewer to decide, but if Aronofsky's goal was to leave his audience shaken, queasy and desperate for an explanation, he definitely achieved his goal.
I personally recommend not researching the movie before you watch it, as this was Aronofsky’s intention — he kept the details of the film’s production and storyline tightly under wraps until recently. However, in case the movie is too much for you to watch without some justification for the distress, I have included some excellent commentaries below.
It is difficult to say every aspect of the film — setting, soundtrack, color palette, camera angles, acting style — is beautifully executed because its elusive “moral” is so disturbing, beautiful seems too kind of a word. In actuality, director Aronofsky’s work in Mother! is beautiful not because of any sort of positive impression it leaves with the audience, but because it so masterfully succeeds in achieving its goal — to leave every viewer appalled.
The Daily Beast, “The Horror of Mother Inside the Most Polarizing Movie of the Year”
Vanity Fair, “Mother Movie Meaning Explained”
Collider, “WTF Is Going on with Darren Aronofsky’s WTF Movie”