And on the sixth day, God made his one mistake – He created man. This is according to the brilliant Darren Aronofsky, whose ‘mother!’ turns out to be the most fascinating exploration of God’s relationship with man. The catch here is, this relationship is scrutinized with some scorn and disdain through the lens of mother nature and it unravels into a weighty misanthropic and admittedly demented parable justifying the backlash and controversy that enveloped it.
Once you get on Aronofsky’s wavelength, shedding all the baggage you walked in with and ceasing to pretend it’s more open-ended than it actually is, you realize it has a fairly simple focus. There isn’t a wasted shot as our director attempts to outline the bible and construct this environmentalist ballad. The crux of Aronofsky’s argument seems to flow from his previous film, ‘Noah’, which had similar themes but he starts in the beginning as most Christians know it (although it took some 45 minutes for the ideas and allusions to take hold) as we meet mother (Jenifer Lawrence) in her pure splendour. She’s like a newborn babe, waking up for the first time, as Aronofsky follows her, carefully exploring the large home shares with her husband (Javier Bardem), who is identified only as Him.
On first viewing, the opening act of ‘mother!’ generally toes the line of normal storytelling, whatever genre you want to ascribe to it. The film is set entirely in the couple’s home, which seems to be totally secluded from civilization. But this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary given Bardem’s character is a famous but frustrated writer trying to rediscover his mojo. Their house is undergoing some remodelling after fire and mother is in the process of applying some finishing touches – some paint and plaster here and there. Like any normal couple, all is not perfect, but there is some degree of contentment until one night, there is a knock on the door and everything changes. man (Ed Harris) enters the picture, like a friendly Carl Fogarty, and it’s not for nothing that he is ushered into the narrative with a classic horror trope.
Harris’ presence screams home invasion and we, of course, think Him unwise for opening up their home to this stranger for the night, despite mother’s tacit censure. But a mini boys club is formed as man reveals he is a fan of Him’s writing, fuelling the latter’s eagerness to play host. Aronofsky can’t seem to go three or four scenes without the bizarre rearing its head, as man’s night in the home will reveal. The next day, woman arrives, played by the quite enjoyable Michelle Pfeiffer. Her performance seems to vacillate between that of an uncensored teenager and a nosy aunt. Her time with the hosts is marked by intrusive quips and unsolicited advice as her brashness slowly irritates mother. Then the “Fall” happens, ushering in a stream of violence and confusion, turning the vast home into a claustrophobic prison for mother as her worst fears take hold.
I’ve noted Aronofsky’s seeming fascination with ‘Noah’, and probably the book of Genesis as a whole. It’s telling that the actual story of Noah features God expressing regret at creating man but our director seems to call BS on this because he views God as some sort egomaniac that indulges man’s obvious weaknesses and perversions because of some desired adulation. The worst part for Aronofsky is that all this is at the expense of poor mother. The flood (among other biblical allusions) is referenced here but there is an ingrained contradiction informed by our writer/director’s perception of God that colour’s how this scene is presented. Aronofsky is intrigued by the idea of God but can’t seem to wrap his head around his ways. He acknowledges God’s all-knowing and all-powerful attributes and it only accentuates his scorn for Him.
On the other hand, Aronofsky is in love with mother and her home. It’s all to do with the reverence and detail given to Lawrence’s character. She seems to almost always be in white, or something close to it. He always sides with her, and more importantly, the heavy subjectivity of this film manages to get us on her side. There is this longing and earnestness in mother’s eyes that feels like a cry for help the more you watch this film. When the camera launches into one of its numerous tight close-ups of Lawrence’s face, the strongest emotion that this film has to offer is pity for Mother. She is resilient, graceful and a thousand other superlatives I’m sure Aronofsky has listed in some notebook under his bed. But there abounds some tragic inevitability because mother, no matter how self-sustaining she is, is still almost footnote in a grander story.
Everybody demands the world from mother, and Aronofsky demands that the magnetic Lawrence lay it all down for this film as the butt of the comedic beats and subject of the horror-inspired and plainly cruel moments. ‘mother!’ gets incredibly unnerving and visceral at times and serves a proper gut punch to audiences. Aronofsky cares little for subtlety in the final act and unleashes sequences of pure unhinged cinema that only disciples of David Cronenberg and David Lynch would have been remotely prepared for. ‘mother!’ becomes a steamroller of mutating and suffocating chaos, with each edit slowly swallowing up mother, who is an unwilling partaker of a terrifying communion at the eye of the storm.
There is no middle ground in ‘mother!’ you will love it or hate it. Either way, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before thematically. As a feat in filmmaking, there is this unpleasantly tactile quality to the film that lingers on and makes you wonder the disturbing dark holes these creatives live in. Filmmakers like William Friedkin or more recently, Nicolas Winding Refn have left me in a similar vortex of reflection before. Speaking of Refn, he is a filmmaker that looked to explore the nature of God in the unintentionally ironical ‘Only God Forgives’. He dwells on one extreme of the spectrum as far as understanding God is concerned – the ruthless Old Testament avenger that I imagine Aronofsky longs for, not the softie he believes God to be.
‘mother!’ never stops moving. It’s a mad spinning gyre of unnerving domesticity and wicked dark humour that goes off the rails because it wants to and needs to. It is constructed to test almost every facet of an audience’s being – patience, decency and even faith. It doesn’t matter if you fail or pass (except for your faith). Aronofsky just wants to tell a story fueled by vision and passion that leaves a mark on audiences with an undeniably striking piece of cinema.