Creating Something Together: Mother! in perspectives

illustration by Tony Stella

The central metaphor of Mother! is clear as day, just ask anyone.

An old house that we never leave, surrounded by lush greenery that is never named. Eden.

Mother Nature has awoken to find her husband—God, “Him,” Javier—gone. Hopefully at work, drawing from inspiration to create the art she loves so. Their life is tranquil, perfect. “I want to create a paradise,” she later explains.

Until a knock on the door changes everything. It’s Adam—a man, a fan, born from the work of Him. He wants to know what God is doing, how He is doing it, what that shiny thing is in His office. Mother is not pleased, but welcomes him in. She’ll do whatever she can to please Him.

But when you let a human into Eden, he’s going to want to bring a friend, and so Eve—sultry, electric, Michelle Pfeiffer—shows up. And then their sons arrive, too, and even He can’t stop them from fighting and killing.

At the funeral, which Mother throws against her will and much to her surprise, the people keep coming, keep questioning her rules and testing her boundaries. It’s chaotic, smothering, an absolute nightmare for those who don’t take to having people in their home. He listens to her complaints but doesn’t seem to hear them. Then a flood comes and washes them out. In the heat of the tumultuous night (and day), He and she become one, and Mother becomes pregnant.

Darren Aronofsky has long had his eyes fixed on the mythology of religion. While in Noah he brought to life all the fury and terror of an Old Testament God in the Jewish tradition, with Mother! he strikes deep into the heart of Christian faith, twisting out an apocalyptic version of the Bible as told from the Earth’s perspective.

On his press tour for the film, Aronofsky was quite forthcoming about his intentions. He wanted to flip the script and use the biblical allegory in order to get after deeper thoughts about climate change; to push the audience to identify with the destruction of humanity as the righteous fury of the planet we so thoughtlessly consume. He was entirely forthright (save for one detail) about each allegorical step he took, why he made certain decisions to represent his dream, and what audiences could expect from his vision. (That it came mere weeks after David Lynch had so steadfastly refused to do the same for Twin Peaks: The Return made it all the more striking in The Discourse.)

And so the allegory clicked into place: The sick relationship between The Poet and Mother, seemingly repeated into infinity, a perfect fit for the way the Bible allows room for mankind’s errors, the way God—in his infinite forgiveness—will always find room in his heart to continue. He, almighty and impotent, isn’t plagued and worn down by humanity the way that she is.  

But she can create life—create—all by herself. The Poet has an identity outside of himself, the home, the family, the unity; Mother’s is all wrapped up in it. It links her to him, irretrievably, but also gives her more ownership of their son—Christ—her voice louder, no longer the soft demure, as she tries to protect the Holy Son from mankind’s destructive devotion. She’s Mother Earth and the Virgin Mary all in one. He is just God.

It was all right there and everything fits perfectly.

Well. Sort of.

The central metaphor of Mother! is clear as day, just ask anyone.

It represents the trials of creation, how the work you make comes at a cost to you and everyone around you, only to be wrecked by the very people who eagerly consume it.

After He invites more and more people into their house, Mother finally convinces him to create their own life. It’s what inspires him, after all, along with all the other stuff. As she prepares  to have their child, he brings a second book into the world, just as things are finally coming together in the house. The kitchen sink, it seems, is braced. No more intrusive visitors. Introverts can breath again.

But on the the day of publication—when every copy has sold out of every store—as she prepares the celebration, bam: they’re back. Right there, on the front lawn. The fawning populous wants more, and so does He. As dinner gets cold He promises it’ll be just a few minutes, but then the fans start flowing in. They take the food, the plates, the walls, the phone. He can’t believe how much they love him; He’s eating it up. She can’t believe how much they love him; they’re literally tearing her life apart.

By the end she has no choice. In a movie already filled with stomach-churning tension, the final act ratchets it all up even further and faster, blowing through room after room of destruction and chaos. Mother gives birth to a baby, but that baby is soon killed, distributed for food amongst the Poet’s fans. She takes a few swings, gets more than her share in return, and takes to the basement to set the world—sorry, the house—ablaze.

There’s a selfishness that has to happen during production so that the art can really shine. But in Mother! we see what it’s like in the shade of it all. On his press tour for the film, among the gossip and talk about his relationship with Jennifer Lawrence, which at times threatened to overshadow the film, Aronofsky spoke to these themes. “A film director is a very different kind of artist. I only have to be a monster on set—for two or three months every few years. The rest of the time I’m a nine-to-five father,” he told The Guardian in September.

In order to create you must consume, and often that can mean spitting out some funhouse, three-act reflection of you and your loved ones. Mother! luxuriates in the pain of creation, dabbling in so many different ways with what it truly means to create. Javier Bardem imbues his Poet with an undercurrent of jealousy and righteousness regarding the rules of creation, or the ease with which his wife can create life. Lawrence lets her Mother take care of the cooking, cleaning, construction, maintaining, and general production of their life, so that He can focus on his work. The ebb and flow of their dynamic could represent an artist and a muse, struggling for a balance between their two interests, just as much as it could be representative of the duality of any creator, struggling with their desire to draw things in and shut others out. But either way you’re left with the same thing: The heart of the work—battered, calcified—and the chance to start again.

Mother! evokes biblical imagery in order to tease out deeper ideas that bridge the entirety of humanity. Who among us isn’t looking to create our own little Eden, only to have it spoiled by an intrusive visitor, thought, event? That the Poet seemingly knew that people would—could—do this is as much a cruelty as it is an addiction.

But while He may want more, he needs Mother. Anyone who attempts to make work needs that voice to encourage them when no one else will. She is the heart of the operation.

And so Mother is constantly encouraged to stay in the house, even as people die and her escape seems so close. She must stay there, and watch people pose for pictures with the raw, gaping wounds of her life, forever. Or, until the end. “You’ve taken everything from me,” she croaks. “I need one more thing,” He responds.

Whether or not Aronofsky is exactly your cup of tea, as a human, he brings the film alive. He melds inspirations to form a movie that’s one part Divine Comedy and one part Polanski, with a heaping dose of Renaissance painting for aesthetic. His knack for spectacle turns into a slow burn until suddenly it boils over, revealing the grotesquity of creation.

And the proof is in the pudding; it all fits perfectly.

Well. Sort of.

The central allegory of Mother! is clear as day, just ask anyone.

It’s a knotty mess of biblical scenes, environmentalism, cautionary tales, relationship advice, and introversion. The story is as tied up in one thing as it is in the next, and it’s not interested in being easy so much as it is in being a sort of force-fed parable.

Somewhere in that corner there’s also a dose of Aronofsky himself—though exactly how much, and of what, depends on who you ask. That the film represents a 48-year-old in a fraught relationship with a 27-year-old—on paper similar to the relationship started during production between the director and Lawrence—is not something Aronofsky intended to have as dissected as it was.

“My ego is in every character in every film that I’ve made,” he said in The Guardian. “I’m the ballerina in Black Swan. I’m the wrestler in The Wrestler. I can see how people will especially make the connection with this one. But it’s also all fiction; it’s all smoke and mirrors.”

Mother!, we’re supposed to believe, is just “a projection of [his] life and what [he’s] thinking about.”

And there’s some truth in that, just as there’s truth in those that see Aronofsky’s whole life, or living with a genius, or an alternate take on the Bible, or even The Yellow Wallpaper. Five people will cite five different takes on the crucial points of Mother! The only thing audiences seem to be able to agree on is that the metaphor that layers and begets the story is loud, audacious, and undeniable.

Would the film play for a person who didn’t come from an Evangelical background? To someone who hadn’t supported a significant other through a creative project? For a homeowner who liked inviting random people into the house? Maybe. Perhaps not as richly. But the remarkable thing about Mother! (whether it’s the most remarkable thing of the year or not) is that it finds such breadth in specificity. The particulars of the Bible are just as present  as the trappings of fame,  or as the fraught relationship that comes with Bardem’s expert performance as Him, a caricature of masculinity as much as anything else.

The nature of any mindfuck allegory is that it needs layers to operate, even if it does so rather obviously. Unlike its titular character, Mother! refuses to step quietly as it trundles along. Every new notch in plot and tension screams ALLEGORY, begging for the audience to puzzle and solve as they go along. It’s impossible to discuss with anyone who hasn’t seen the movie because discussion gives the future viewer a rudder, when they’re meant to be in well over their heads.

The whole thing is a fever dream, but like any dream, it has a kind of logic to it that dances just beyond our grasp.

And maybe that’s as it should be. On some level—take your pick—it’s a harsh condemnation of humans and their ability to wreck anything pure in their lives. But it’s also indicative of humanity’s desire to consume, desperate for more. It’s an adulation that neither the Poet—God, Him, Javier—nor Aronofsky seem to turn away from.

At such a low-concept yet bald-faced metaphorical level, Mother! exists as both purely a puzzle and also as a deeply rich metatextual flex of skill. For whatever there is to be said for not “solving” a piece of pop culture, Mother! is an immensely enjoyable experience to pull apart and put back together. It’s an unmitigated strength of the film that the experience extends beyond the theater and encourages discussion, holding up pieces to support one reading or another. In this way, Mother! is a bit like a stick of butter: easy to slice through but still completely opaque, with plenty to go around.

It’s bonkers and ecstatic about it all. The whole thing is a riddle, begging to be unlocked, as much as it is already an open book, as much as it is a metaphor, as much as it is Darren Aronofsky, as much as it isn’t Aronofsky at all.

The whole thing seems so simple and clear at first that it barely seems worth discussing with the person sitting next to you—until it becomes clear they’ve received clarity in a whole other way. And so it’s time to start again with Mother!, to find even richer rewards.

And everything clicks into place and fits perfectly.

Well, sort of.