[This post contains minor spoilers.]
Earlier this year, it seemed a certainty that Gore Verbinski’s lavish gothic nightmare A Cure for Wellness would be the weirdest wide release from a major studio in 2017, and probably for many years to come, given its dismal box office. As it happens, Wellness’ reign only lasted six months. Director Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting multiplex audience. It’s the kind of film that leaves the viewer dazed and fumbling for words, wondering how it was ever greenlit, let alone brought to life. It embodies the nervy, go-for-broke species of filmmaking that elicits excitement simply by existing. It is also utterly deranged, a work that comes perilously close to being unintentionally funny. For this writer, it did not, but it is perfectly understandable if some viewers gape in disbelief and irritation, muttering “Are you fucking kidding me?”
The less said about the plot, the better, so a sketch of the opening scenario must suffice. In a remote, sprawling house, a middle-aged poet (Javier Bardem) dwells with his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), who is at least twenty years his junior. (In the first of many touches that signal Aranofsky’s allegorical aims, these characters are never named. Taking a page for Antichrist, they are simply listed as “Him” and “Mother” in film’s credits.) Originally His childhood home, the house was mostly destroyed in a fire, but it’s since been rebuilt and refurbished in a faux-rustic style. This remodeling is due to the painstaking efforts of the Mother, who views it as her role to create an idyllic space for her husband’s work. There doesn’t seem to be much of said work going on, however. He disappears for long stretches in between bouts of staring impotently at a blank page, fountain pen in hand. She gives him apprehensive but encouraging smiles, and carries on with preparing meals, doing laundry, restoring furniture, and painting walls.
There are early signs that not all is as it seems in this bucolic world. Some are subtle, such as the curious absence of roads connecting the house to the outside world. (The surrounding landscape is simply a ring of green, rustling grass, giving the house the feeling of an isolated prairie homestead.) Other are less so, such as the Mother's repeated visions of a throbbing, heart-like organ deep within the walls of the house, or the rattling, plaster-loosening thud she hears behind a bricked-up niche in the cellar. Aronofsky gives these early scenes an unmistakable atmosphere of squirming horror. Something is wrong, but what that something might be is maddeningly indefinite, to both the viewer and to the Mother.
The film ruthlessly adheres to the Mother's viewpoint, and in light of the director’s 2010 feature Black Swan, the viewer is naturally inclined suspect that she may be an unreliable protagonist. Pointedly, the Mother suffers from ringing migraines that can only be relieved by imbibing a yellow powder dissolved in water, a solution that doesn’t resemble anything a doctor would prescribe in the 21st century. Nonetheless, it eventually becomes apparent that mother! is unfolding on a stage where the usual horror and thriller twists—she’s dreaming / dead / insane / a computer program / whatever—are rendered irrelevant. Aronofsky is working in the realm of Old Testament nightmare, and, befitting his po-faced storytelling style, he never once reveals his hand or cracks a grin. The optimal way to experience mother! is to assume that what one is seeing is “real,” no matter how batshit it becomes. (And hoo boy, does it ever…)
Eventually, the couple’s isolation is disrupted by the arrival of an older Man (Ed Harris), purportedly a surgeon in search of a bed and breakfast. The poet invites him to spend the night—without consulting with his wife, naturally—and soon the two men are conversing into the wee hours over drinks like old friends. Not incidentally, the Man confesses that he is a huge fan of the poet's work, and this bit of ego stroking is all the lubrication needed to embed the Man in the house, like a chain-smoking, ill-mannered tick. The next day his wife the Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, and she is similarly negligent, brusque, and presumptuous, with a twist of vodka-soaked WASPish venom. The mysterious presence of these strangers is plainly a source of anxiety for the Mother, who gradually grows to feel like an impotent trespasser in her own home. She is eyed contemptuously or outright ignored, and yet somehow, she always seems to be saddled with the work of cleaning up the guests’ heedless messes. (This too becomes a source of hallucinatory horror, as when she glimpses some fleshy Cronenbergian vermin lurking in the depths of a clogged toilet.) Unfortunately, the Man and Woman are only the first of many visitors who will invade the house.
That’s all that it seems prudent to say about “what happens” in mother!, in the plot sense. Increasingly, the film devolves into a symphony of nerve-wracking chaos, as a catalog of humanity’s ugliest impulses slithers and shreds and smashes its way into the house. The third act is one long, jaw-dropping descent into apocalyptic hell, as the Mother is battered bodily by waves of invasion and destruction. The final 30 minutes or so of the film are such an unhinged, uninterrupted spectacle of pandemonium, the viewer will find themselves afraid to blink.
Aronofsky draws inspiration from a range of psychological and supernatural horror films, including those directed by the likes of De Palma, del Toro, Kubrick, and the aforementioned Cronenberg. There’s more than a little of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls in mother!’s lineage, and dribbles of The Conjuring and its ilk as well. The most immediately salient influence, however, is undoubtedly Roman Polanski’s informal “Apartment Trilogy” of horror features: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant. Rosemary’s fingerprints are conspicuous enough that one of mother!’s poster designs is an explicit riff on the iconic poster for Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, but Aronofsky’s feature touches on motifs and themes from all three films.
One component lifted from Polanski that is vital to mother!’s mood is the anxiety of losing control—not of one's self, but of one’s situation. Like Rosemary Woodhouse, Repulsion’s Carol, and The Tenant’s Trelvoksky, the Mother is reduced to a miserably passive role, swept along by the schemes and appetites of the people around her. However, where Polanski’s vulnerable protagonists are pursued and remolded by others, the Mother is simply ignored. Although mother! is an unabashedly phantasmagorical work, its surreal heights are underlain by a foundation of real-world anxieties. (Women’s anxieties specifically; more on that in a moment.) The film’s horror is rooted in impotence and invisibility: Much of mother! consists of Lawrence screaming herself hoarse at people who simply won’t listen. In isolation, many of the film’s scenes resemble archetypal nightmares about the challenge of asserting oneself and drawing boundaries: There were strangers in my house, eating my food and using my toilets and taking my things, and I shouted for them to leave, but no one paid any attention to me. (In this, the film resembles an inside-out revisionist take on Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.)
Aronofsky’s film is so dense with potential allegorical readings, there will doubtlessly be some who accuse mother! of being a hodgepodge of vivid imagery that looks meaningful but doesn’t convey any coherent meaning. The validity of this criticism is undercut by the richness of any individual metaphor the viewer chooses to pursue. Different viewers will gaze into the pulsating depths of this dark prism and see different things, but every vision is stark and terrifying. The possible interpretations are manifold: the monotheistic God as self-absorbed sociopath; the history of human civilization compressed into two hours; the cyclical bedlam of pop culture consumption; or a lacerating portrait of an artist’s self-loathing, to name just a few. These and other readings are all fruitful veins of exploration. (It will fall to other writers to psychoanalyze the film’s seething disgust for the male artistic ego and its need for adulation.)
For this writer, the most evocative approach to mother! is a feminist one. (Confoundingly yet predictably, the film’s righteous loathing for the exploitation of women is already being willfully misconstrued as misogyny in some quarters.) Early in the film, Aronofsky devotes a significant amount of screen time to the Mother’s daily housework and long-term rehabbing projects. Creating the perfect home is manifestly a labor of love for her, but it’s a love that is ultimately channeled towards an (allegedly) Great Man. With almost impressionistic gestures, the film illustrates the colossal effort that the Mother puts into the four-course, Instagram-worthy meals she prepares. It then gracefully draws attention to the way that He swoops in, devours them, mutters his gratitude, and then flits away to devote more time to the writing that his is obviously not doing. No horror film in memory has scrutinized the unacknowledged, uncompensated physical and emotional labor of women with such remorseless resentment. It’s not a portrait of the artist as an abusive brute, but as an ordinary self-absorbed, negligent man.
Despite mother!’s mythic sensibility, the film’s depiction of gender roles is unexpectedly realist, not to mention bitterly critical. Remarkably, this element of modern socio-political commentary is not diminished by the film’s absorption with ghastly gothic motifs or Biblical symbolism. (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and other Old Testament dyads are frequently alluded to.) If anything, they lend mother! an added dose of “same as it ever was” pessimism. This sentiment is underlined by the way the film ultimately loops in on itself—much like The Tenant, as it happens—suggesting a never-ending cycle of exploitation.
Aronofksy’s film will likely be a deeply uncomfortable experience for some male viewers. Part of that discomfort is visceral, stemming from how closely the film follows the Mother’s viewpoint as she endures a marathon of psychological and physical mortification. (Reverse Maniac, one might call it.) However, as with Richard Yates’ blistering novel of midcentury discontent, Revolutionary Road, what truly disturbs about mother! is how easy it is to discern oneself in the entitled, churlish male characters. It’s psychologically repellent in a way that hurts, and it hurts because it contains a sliver of truth. In mother!’s nightmarish conception, patriarchy isn’t so much a despot as a gluttonous maw, devouring everything that women can give: their labor, support, attention, adulation, bodies, and children. When there’s nothing left, it tosses them aside and reaps all the rewards (and credit) for their invisible contributions. Male power is, counter-intuitively, portrayed as a lumbering succubus.
The sinewy intelligence of mother! lies in its astonishing capacity for nuance, despite its garish and gory metaphors. Underneath the film’s thick slathering of terror and rage, Aronofsky conveys the myriad complicating dynamics that make patriarchy a lumpy slurry of dispiriting grays rather than a black-and-white tale of male villainy. At various points, mother! touches on the way that women can be revered even as they are exploited; on women’s participation in and perpetuation of misogyny; and on the vicious, mercurial criticisms directed at women who are public figures. (Including celebrities like—wait for it—Jennifer Lawrence.)
None of this is to say that Aronofksy’s film doesn’t invite other, equally compelling readings. Nestled within mother! is a desolate parable about the birth, life, and death of works of art, to cite just one example, and that story dovetails with its feminist outlook in evocative ways. Nor is it the case that a feminist interpretation is entirely fitting. There are a handful of frustrating gestures that undercut this reading, such as the Mother’s eventual willingness to play the role of a selfless, self-annihilating martyr. What’s so stimulating about mother! is that it invites this sort of reflection rather than demanding a clear-cut reaction. Its ideas are emergent rather than painted-on, which makes it doubly frustrating that it’s exactly the sort of film that will inevitably (and inaccurately) labeled as pretentious. Pretense implies an arrogant intellectual posturing that weakens a film’s principal obligation to tell a compelling story. mother! is just the opposite. In the moment, it's a riveting work of cinema that rattles the senses. In the days and weeks that follow, it urges the viewer to ruminate on what exactly they glimpsed in that whirlwind of blood and fire.