Mother! is an allegory as only Darren Aronofsky can tell it – cinematic, psychological, surreal, fatalistic, darkly philosophical, and utterly uncompromising. Although it doesn’t provide any new insights into the nature of relationships or life or death, specifically in regards to the roles and responsibilities imposed on and assumed by women, it does present them in a very shocking and attention-grabbing way, which, in an age of nonstop high-concept comic book adaptations, is refreshingly daring. And though the insights aren’t new, they are nevertheless accurate and compelling. It’s disturbing and visceral, but there’s genuine artistry at work, and it will certainly inspire a lot of discussions.
It’s a film in which Aronofsky gets in touch with his feminine side. I don’t mean that in the pop psychology sense, which reduces the word “feminine” to oversimplified notions of soft, sweet, and demure; he genuinely puts himself into the minds of women and examines their needs and wants, without having to be condescending or sentimental. He understands that, generally speaking, they nurture when it’s asked of them, and even when it isn’t asked of them. They give to others and either expect nothing in return or resign themselves to the fact. They create homes – yes, by decorating, but more so by being married and raising children. They carry life and literally go through great pains to bring it out into the world.
This understanding is revealed through characters who aren’t given proper names, only descriptions, and placing them in a symbolic scenario. We have Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and her husband Him (Javier Bardem), who live a quiet existence in an isolated house surrounded by fields of green. Him is a renowned writer, a poet, who’s struggling to find his words once again. The house is his, and it recently burned; Mother, when introduced, is often shown working on the house – renovating it, covering up or repairing the damage, trying to build a nest for herself but especially for her husband. When she puts her hand on a wall, she feels and visualizes the heartbeat of the entire house. It’s not a living entity, not in the literal sense. But when you think about it, there’s something indescribably organic about turning a house into a home.
One day, Man (Ed Harris) and his wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive. For Him, it’s a wonderful turn of events, a career-minded need to bring life into his home – which is to say a selfish need. For Mother, it’s a disruption. Man and Woman are strangers. And little by little, in ways that are subtle only initially, they’re undoing what Mother was working so hard to make. Him doesn’t notice, because generally speaking, when it comes to men and women, it’s never about what women want, only what they’re expected to do, not just by other men but by unwritten societal rules. Mother of course does do what’s expected of her, in spite of the stress it’s putting her under.
Man and Woman’s arrival begins a chain reaction that brings other people into the house, in turn giving Mother all new kinds of disruptions and obstacles that she’s expected to smile her way through. It becomes increasingly chaotic and unsettling until at last all has devolved into a horror of extraordinary magnitude. When it comes to little things like wiping up a spilt drink or big things like scrubbing blood off the floor, there’s always a mess left for Mother to clean up. We know she loves her husband. Her husband says she loves her, although later scenes make it apparent that what he’s more in love with is his status as an artist and a provider. He loves the fact that she’s by his side, nurturing not just him but also those that worship him just for being him.
The ending, the entire film, will be lost on those who don’t understand allegory, who think all stories are supposed to be a series of neatly constructed scenes. One must consider the point of the film: To unflinchingly, empathetically visualize the psychological makeup of women in this thing we call life. Just when they think they have absolutely nothing left to give, they find that they always have that one last thing. And rather than keep it for themselves, they will give it away. And then, somehow, it will happen all over again. Sacrifice – something women the world over know a lot about. Men do too, but not in the same way. I think the exclamation point in the title Mother! is more than a stylistic touch. It’s an emphatic reminder of what the women in our lives have done for us, and what little we’ve done for them in return.