Spoilers for Mother! below
No one said watching Mother! was going to be easy. Indeed, writer-director Darren Aronofsky recently told Vulture that he wanted audiences to be “prepped that it’s a very intense ride,” that it’s “a cruise missile shooting into a wall,” and even that “most people, after they see the film, they don’t even wanna look at me.” That said, for the first two-thirds of the picture, it’s hard to see why he might have made such claims, as the viewer is mostly just watching a domestic drama about a strained couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) and some rude visitors (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer). But as the third act commences, events spin out of control, gunshots ring out, people are killed, Lawrence gets verbally and physically abused, and extreme discomfort sets in for a viewer.
Then a baby gets eaten.
Lawrence’s character, billed as “Mother” in the credits, gives birth amid a kind of house party–cum–riot in the home she built for her husband, listed as “Him.” The domicile has filled with Him’s fans (he’s an acclaimed poet), who are obsessed with his message that everything in the home is to be shared by all. They take that to mean they can take and/or destroy whatever they want — and eventually, that includes Mother’s newborn. The wee lad is carried, crowd-surfing style, by the teeming crowd, and its neck snaps. Lawrence wails and tries to find it, only to discover that an altar has been built for its corpse, and the people are feeding off of its flesh in a grisly ritual of tribute to Him.
If you walked out of the final 30-odd minutes of Mother! with feelings of either devotion or revulsion, you are certainly not alone, and we invite you to join us in discussing the infant-eating sequence and the whole ending, in general.
Was the baby thing a step too far?
Aronofsky is no stranger to shock value, having given us such moments as Winona Ryder stabbing herself in Black Swan, the main character giving himself a lobotomy in Pi, and the infamous “ass to ass” scene in Requiem for a Dream. But killing off a newborn, even a CGI one, is a big leap for him. Baby murder is generally off-limits in cinema, and witnessing it triggers your lizard brain’s instinct to protect young life, making even the most hardened stomach potentially churn. It perhaps fits with the environmental and religious metaphors of the film (which we’ll get to in more detail in a minute) by showing the ways in which mankind destroys that which is most precious to us. But there’s also a solid argument to be made that it was a gratuitous attempt to inflict something memorable at the cost of good taste.
Did the commotion and intensity of the final act add up to a meaningful viewing experience?
Say what you will about Mother! — no one can deny that it gets loud. As more and more of Him’s worshippers stream into the house, the sound of their yells and cries becomes overwhelming. Indeed, everything they do starts to feel overwhelming: They tear apart walls, they rip up a kitchen, they bellow at Mother; police and soldiers enter and start shooting the place up; a book publicist played by Kristen Wiig executes some prisoners by firing at their heads at point-blank range; and so on. Our reviewer felt that it was all sound and fury that signified nothing. But it could also be said that we were supposed to be seeing the ways in which humanity loses control over itself when it’s given the freedom to do as it pleases. Seen through that lens, the crescendo is necessary to jolt the viewer into understanding just how awful we really are, and thus to incite us to improve ourselves.
Was it necessary to have the mob yell gendered epithets at Mother?
After Mother sees that her child has been devoured, she finally lashes out at the crowd after more than an hour of gracefully taking abuse from everyone. However, even though she gets a few good stabbings in, she’s quickly knocked onto her back, at which point people start kicking her. The violence would maybe be enough to convey the hatred that these folks feel toward someone who has been more sinned against than sinning, but on top of that, they also start calling her a “bitch,” a “cunt,” and other misogynist terms. Those words have a tremendous amount of power and shouldn’t be used lightly, so the question is: Did they add anything to the moment? It could be argued that Aronofsky was making sure we knew how much humanity can hate women, but there had already been a few scenes earlier in the film that showed sexism (most memorably when a sleazy gent tries to use some pickup-artist techniques on Mother), so maybe the message had already been conveyed.
Did the environmental metaphors work for you?
Aronofsky and Lawrence have made no secret of the fact that they want people to see Mother! as an allegory about humanity’s destruction of the environment. And, in a couple of ways, the allegory plays out perfectly: Mother represents Mother Earth, who is continually abused by humanity; the teeming hordes represent that humanity, who have no respect for their Mother. But beyond that, how does the metaphor fit for the other characters? Are Harris and Pfeiffer supposed to stand in for specific kinds of people that are particularly worse than the great mass of us all? Maybe, given the fact that they’re haggling over a will with their sons, they represent capitalism, which is a driving force in ecosystemic destruction? And what about Him? Is He supposed to be God? Are we to blame God for pollution and overconsumption? If so, doesn’t that take away some of our own agency? Or could it be that Him has no agency, and that devotion to God is what gives people the feeling that they have ownership over the world and can do with it as they will? That brings us to our next question …
Was the movie more of a religious metaphor than an environmental one?
Seen from a religious perspective, it feels like more of the characters fall into place. Harris and Pfeiffer are billed as Man and Woman, and could be seen as Adam and Eve. Their children, played by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson, are Oldest Son and Younger Brother, and one kills the other — easy, that means they’re Cain and Abel. Him has a capital “H” in His name and, near the end, says, “I am I,” which is a line God uses in scripture. The mob worships Him and, in doing so, wreak havoc, leading one to believe they’re followers of organized religion. But the sticking point here is Mother. Is she supposed to be Mary, impregnated by God, only to lose her only son to the angry horde? That’s plausible, but if she’s Mary, doesn’t that get rid of the Mother Earth metaphor? Our best guess is that the movie is a hybrid of the two metaphors, with the religious side more pervasive but the environmental one more important to the creators. But your mileage may vary.
Did the last couple of minutes make any sense?
At the very end of the flick, we see Mother burn down the house (well, burn it and then outright blow it up), killing everyone except herself and Him. Outside, on the blighted lawn, He holds Mother in His arms and asks her for one more thing. Much like the Giving Tree, she responds that she has nothing left to give. But he says she does: her love. She says he can take it, and he reaches inside her chest to pull out her heart, at which point she turns into dust and ash. He crushes her heart up and reveals a crystal that looks just like the crystal he used to have in his study, earlier in the film. He places the crystal in a holder and the first few minutes of the movie play out once again: The house is restored, the grass grows green, and a woman (this time played by a different actor) wakes up in bed and looks for Him.
So … what exactly was that supposed to mean? That life is cyclical? That God has made many worlds before this one, destroyed them, and will do so again? That mankind has a chance to set things right, even though we’ve already gone past the point of no return on our Mother Earth? That artists are given too many chances at redemption after they screw up their relationships? Or is there some other significance that’s more obscure and entirely unrelated to the metaphors?
Will you ever be able to look at Kristen Wiig the same way again?
We know we won’t.