Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie mother! is the blackest of black comedies and a fairly heavy-handed religious allegory — to me. The great thing about Darren Aronofsky’s movie is that it can be interpreted pretty much however you like. The inclusion of the classic and archetypal dichotomy of Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters means that the movie is entirely open to interpretation, potentially saying more about you as the viewer from your interpretation than your interpretation could ever say about the movie.
So far I’ve seen, scattered around the internet: religious readings, feminist readings, horror readings, climate change readings, psychoanalytic readings, and readings about artistic creation. Whilst the filmmakers themselves have made numerous references to the religious reading being correct, that is still very much open to interpretation — who says the filmmakers are right anyway? To save you from wading through all the insane theories here’s a list of the most popular ones.
The Religious Reading
There is a very clear religious allegory going on throughout the film. The naming of the characters is the first clue of many: Javier Bardem is “Him” and Jennifer Lawrence is “Her”, whilst Ed Harris is “Man” and Michelle Pfeiffer is “Woman”. Bardem is the God of the Abrahamic religions, Lawrence represents the pagan concept of Mother Nature and the house is the Earth. The devoted dying Man is Adam, and after a night of drinking Bardem would have appeared to have removed one of Man’s ribs to create Woman — Eve, played by Pfeiffer. They invade the house, and are extremely rude and destructive houseguests, causing Lawrence endless grief. Their sons then turn up, an argument breaks out and the older son kills the younger — just like Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Able in the Old Testament.
The Biblical allegories continue as Adam and Eve invite more people into the house, a metaphor for the population of Earth, which results in a flood — taken straight, of course, from the Book of Genesis. For a brief moment in the film, there is calm, as it is revealed that Her is pregnant. Yet more crowds soon invade the house, and a horrific chaos ensues. With her baby devoured, and her home being destroyed by the crowd’s heinous acts, Her eventually commits suicide, taking her beloved home with her.
The religious interpretation of this movie is what the filmmakers intended, and it fits very well. The conflict between the Judeo-Christian God and the pagan Mother Earth, how their harmony is ruined by both God’s human creations and his hubris, fuels the film. Her is concerned with protecting the house, whilst Him is concerned with feeding his ego with adoration from his creations; this would appear to be Aronofsky offering a scathing criticism of the Judeo-Christian God, as well as humanity’s complete lack of care for our home.
The Feminist Criticism
There seem to be plenty of feminist interpretations of this movie and they fit so well because at its heart the movie is about a bad husband and a suffering wife. People have been comparing mother! to The Yellow Wallpaper, a seminal feminist text by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was written in the late 1800s. The story revolves around a woman’s descent into madness when confined within a house for her health — a common practice at the time. The lead of mother! is similarly trapped within a house, at the behest of her domineering husband who does not want her to leave. The latter part of the film could quite easily be seen as Her losing her mind, just like the unnamed narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper.
Whilst Darren Aronofsky may have been aiming for female empowerment, the feminist criticism goes that mother! focuses too much on the suffering of Her — many of the shots hone in on Lawrence’s distraught reactions. Does watching someone beaten and then committing suicide, but still willing to give their heart to their abuser fit in with female empowerment? I’m not so sure.
The Theme Of Climate Change
This interpretation is not incompatible with the religious interpretation, and in fact, they go hand in hand. In the bowel of the house, when Her commits suicide, spilling oil everywhere and setting the place on fire, she takes humanity with her. The meaning of this sequence is pretty self-explanatory, and is similar to the Biblical reading in that it features Her as an allegory for nature, who is distraught at the havoc humans have wrought on her world. Part of the reason for the death of the house is His incompetence and hubris, but it is mostly caused by his followers, the humans.
Living in 2017, it is getting harder every year to deny the effect we have had and are having on the Earth as a species. Deforestation, pollution, and the mistreatment of the sea are causing continually rising temperatures and worsening weather events — signs of our planet’s ailment. In mother! Aronofsky is warning us that if we don’t take care of our home, Mother Nature is gonna burn that shit down.
Can we also just acknowledge the ludicrousness of Mother Earth as a proud housewife renovating and protecting her house? Brilliant.
The Story As Artist vs Muse
The theme of a creator leeching the life and hope from his muse is evident throughout mother! — but Aronofsky himself has said he hasn’t really considered this element of the story. This could be because it’s too obvious, or because it hits a little too close to home, considering that he and Lawrence are now dating.
Bardem plays the character of the suffering artist, needing to create and be adored by rapturous and devoted fans. Lawrence is the suffering wife and muse, always giving and accommodating so he can make great art and thus feed his own ego. This mythic idea of male creation, of something that must be nurtured to appear and applauded, is something that is rarely addressed in art, so for me, this is one of the most interesting interpretations of the movie.
Or Maybe It’s Just A Horror Movie
Literally, mother! is a movie about a crappy husband and some much crappier houseguests. Marketed as a home-invasion horror, mother! would seemingly have a lot in common with Rosemary’s Baby, and its marketing even included a poster that references the cult classic. If you want to see mother! as a horror, I would personally say it is not a very good one. The movie does open much as you would expect from a horror flick, and later descends into madness, chaos, and horrifically graphic imagery — but I think that’s where the similarity with the genre ends.
Mother! defies categorisation, and it is all the better for it. Part of the furore around the movie receiving a usually damning “F” from CinemaScore (who poll the audience leaving the cinema on opening weekend), is because the film was partly mis-sold. The truth is Aronofsky is never going to be mainstream, and mother! could vie for the title of the weirdest movie in his catalogue of very weird movies.
This article is by no means exhaustive, and the beauty of mother!is that we can only draw meaning from the plot via interpretations that ascribe symbolism to characters and events — and that is part of its genius. Whether you loved or hated mother!, it has been a long time since a movie has been this divisive or offered so much material for interpretation.