What the Heck Was ‘mother!’ About? A Few Possible Theories
The following post contains SPOILERS for mother!
Here’s a sample of some of the comments I overheard on my way out of mother! last night:
- “Dude, I can’t even.”
- “SO weird!”
- “Michelle Pfeiffer was EVERYTHING!”
- “Was it a Bible thing or something?”
- “Uh... like, what WAS that?”
No, but really: What was that? Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie is a lot of things. It’s a horror movie, a psychological thriller, a marital drama, and the mother of all religious metaphors. But it is not an easily digestible piece of mass entertainment. It’s also so surreal and deliberately vague (Where are the events taking place? What are these people’s names? What year is it?) that’s it’s open to all different kinds of interpretations. Here are just a few, there are probably others. If you want to share yours, leave it in the comments. We’ll update the post with the best ones we get. Or maybe we’ll just burn the whole post to the ground and start over again from scratch.
1. mother! is a Biblical allegory.
Just about every event, character, and image in mother! has a Biblical counterpart. The unnamed central couple in the film played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live in an isolated paradise that could be the Garden of Eden. Bardem is a poet, and therefore a creator. He brings a man (Ed Harris) and then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) into their home a la Adam and Eve. (Harris’ character even has a wound on his back, perhaps from rib-removal surgery.) Later, Harris and Pfeiffer’s children arrive and one of their sons kill the other. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)
There are intimations of Noah and the flood (a sink gets destroyed and water goes everywhere), the fires of hell (the furnace in the basement), the Old and New Testaments (Bardem wrote one great book in the past, and finishes a new book over the course of the film), and Jesus (Bardem gladly hands over his only son to his mob of followers). The ending is a full-blown apocalypse.
This reading also explains why the mother of the title isn’t capitalized. In the end credits of the film, only one character’s name is capitalized: Bardem’s “Him.” The rest of the characters, including Harris’ “man” and Pfeiffer’s “woman” are left uncapitalized. That makes Him God; God’s pronouns in the Bible are all capitalized. So mother! is uncapitalized because it’s referring to Lawrence’s character.
2. mother! is about the environment.
Lawrence’s mother seems more like a walking symbol than a three-dimensional person. So perhaps we should read her as “Mother Earth.” Throughout the film, Aronofsky shows her touching the walls of her house and then “sensing” its beating heart, which initially looks big and healthy, and ends up as a shriveled husk just before she burns the entire place to the ground.
The arc of the film works as an allegory for humanity’s gradual destruction of the Earth. The planet begins as an unspoiled sanctuary, but as the population grows, the place becomes crowded, rotted, and ruined. The endless parade of guests that come into Lawrence’s house have no sense of decorum or boundaries; they take whatever they want and go wherever they want, a handy metaphor for human consumption and waste. By the time they’re done, they’ve essentially used up every last resource available and then beaten the mother almost to death. That’s when she finally fights back, the equivalent of humanity polluting the planet until it starts to wipe us out with massive hurricanes, droughts, and floods.
There is no one “correct” interpretation of this (or any) film, but the mother!-as-Mother-Earth concept is the one favored by Aronofsky and Lawrence. At the Venice Film Festival, Aronofsky said mother! “came out of living on this planet and sort of seeing what’s happening around us and not being able to do anything. I just had a lot of rage and anger and I just wanted to channel it into one emotion, one feeling.”
3. mother! is about how crappy it is being married to an artist like Darren Aronofsky.
Here are the facts: Aronofsky married actress Rachel Weisz in 2001. They separated some time in 2009 or 2010. They have one son together. Aronofsky has dated other women since the end of his marriage. Now he’s dating Jennifer Lawrence.
If you subtract all the religious and environmental imagery from the movie, what you are left with is a story about the dissolution of a marriage between a writer and his muse. Lawrence’s character is kind, supportive, and caring; Bardem’s character is distant, distracted, and more in love with his fans than his family. She gives; he takes. If you can’t see the overtones to real life here, you might want to get your eyes checked.
Almost every other character in the movie besides the two leads is a fan of Bardem’s, and the more successful he becomes, the worse the marriage gets. His career drives a wedge between the two of them, and ultimately destroys everything. In the film’s final scene, Bardem pulls the heart out of the charred remains of Lawrence’s character, crushes it into a crystal, and then starts the entire cycle of creation to destruction over again. mother!’s final shot is a mirror image of one of its very first shots, of Lawrence waking in the couple’s bed; this time it’s a different woman. So the poet literally rips a woman’s heart out, builds a new home, and replaces her with another woman. Subtle, this movie ain’t.
It’s possible (though extremely unlikely) that all of this is a massive coincidence. Or that it’s intended as a more abstract statement about artists, and not necessarily about Aronofsky himself. Certainly Weisz, a great artist in her own right, was a lot more active in our world than Lawrence’s character is in hers. But it’s hard not to compare mother! to Aronofsky’s biography, or to see the film as a kind of apology to anyone he’s hurt, and a warning to anyone who might love him in the future. Good luck, Jennifer Lawrence!
4. mother! is about how artists live with their creations.
The other component to remember about mother! is that everything that happens originates from a nasty case of writer’s block. (The punctuation mark in the title is a visible reminder of that in every poster, trailer, and commercial.) Finally, after all this struggle to create a new book, Ed Harris’ character shows up. And then after a while, Michelle Pfeiffer emerges. Then their children arrive. Things escalate from there.
This reading is sort of a blend of the religious and autobiographical ones; in this case, Bardem is less of the Creator than a creator. Instead of God’s children, or stand-ins for obsessive fans, Harris and company could be seen as the fictional characters a writer like Aronofsky creates. Here, the house where the whole film is set isn’t Eden or a metaphorical Earth but a representation of the writer’s mind, which becomes a battleground between personal and professional interests and obligations. The bigger Bardem’s creation gets, the harder it is to control — and to focus on his wife, who is forced to fight for attention and privacy. At the end of the movie, the creation is complete, but there’s no space left for Lawrence. In this version, the all-important crystal that opens and closes the movie is the physical manifestation of Bardem’s artwork. Who says physical media is dead?