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‘mother!’: How to Explain What Darren Aronofsky’s Insane Movie is Really About

"mother!" is a wild ride, but what's Aronofsky trying to tell us? We have a few ideas.

"mother!"

“mother!”

Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” is finally playing in theaters nationwide, which means everyone now has the opportunity to discover what’s turning into the most polarizing film of 2017. Paramount Pictures has been marketing the movie as a home invasion horror film, but that’s only part of what Aronofsky has in store for audiences. As IndieWire’s Ben Croll made clear in his A- review, “mother!” is the most audacious film the director has ever made.

Once the credits begin to roll, viewers are bound to have more than a few questions about why they just saw. The truth is that “mother!” is a difficult film to process after only one viewing. To help guide you through Aronofsky’s house of horrors, a few members of IndieWire’s staff shared their own interpretations of the movie. Needless to say, there is more than one way to explain Aronofsky’s shocking vision.

Read below for our personal analysis of the movie, and share your own thoughts and theories in the comments section. Spoilers ahead.

Eric Kohn, Chief Critic and Deputy Editor

It’s rare to find a movie so loaded with ideas that it begs for interpretation, and yet after two viewings of “mother!” I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s deceptively simple — a rather straightforward meditation on the bible as a surreal home invasion thriller. That’s all, folks! And that’s what I love about it. 

Aronofsky has made a disorienting, visceral work so provocative in its labyrinthine mysteries that the fancy wrapping forces audiences to get inside its loopy events and strive to find meaning in the madness. Isn’t that what civilizations have been doing with biblical texts for millennia? As a bored teenage Talmud student (against my will), I rolled my eyes through more than a few prolonged conversations about ancient texts loaded with murky metaphors, peculiar behaviors, and baffling laws. At the same time, I understand the intellectual stimulation of searching for big ideas, and “mother!” provides a template for exploring all kinds of them. Still, the ending itself is a very straightforward conclusion, one that’s aided by an examination of the movie’s first frames: We see a woman burning up, her eyes closing as the flames swarm in, and the assumption is that we’re watching a sneak preview of the mayhem to come. Unless, that is, we’re watching another version of those events transpiring before Lawrence’s character has been created.

In the final moments, Bardem’s deity extracts his Earth-mother wife’s shimmering heart, places it on the mantle, and ostensibly relaunches a whole new version of the existence that just extinguished itself. We’ve been here before: It’s the exact same sequence of images that opened the movie. The implication is that He has been through this process before, in a never-ending quest to create the perfect world. And of course it’s a futile task, one that this brooding poet will likely repeat for eternity. God help us all.

"mother!"

“mother!”

David Ehrlich, Senior Film Critic

I have to be perfectly honest… maybe it’s because I’m an agnostic Jew who only thinks about religion under extreme duress, or maybe it’s just because I’m an idiot, but the biblical overtones of Darren Aronofsky’s wild new whatever didn’t occur to me until I was talking to someone after the movie. They were incredibly obvious as soon as somebody brought them to my attention, and — like the bump on Jean-Claude Van Damme’s forehead — once you see it, you can’t unsee it. But the least interesting interpretation of an artwork often comes from the person who created it, and that’s definitely true in this case. In fact, I was dismayed to learn that Aronofsky tipped his hand about the religious imagery when he introduced the TIFF premiere, because framing the film in such a narrow way invariably interferes with the audience’s freedom to make their own sense of the story.

Read More: The Films of Darren Aronofsky Ranked, From Worst to Best

While I’ve come to appreciate “mother!” as a broad allegory for the destructive, cyclical relationship between people and the earth they inhabit, I first (and most viscerally) connected to the film as a parable about exposing a private relationship to a public existence. While the movie eventually becomes an introvert’s ultimate nightmare, it begins as a cloistered marital drama in which a loving but misbalanced couple is forced to reckon with how the eden of their love is disrupted by the intrusions of the outside world. The expression goes, “I wouldn’t love you if we were the last two people on Earth,” but “mother!” makes the case that things might be a lot easier that way. Of course, there’s no overlooking that Javier Bardem’s character is an artist — and not just any kind of artist, but the most dangerous and hedonistic kind of artist there is: a poet. Okay, yes, it’s funny that a poet should inspire such a fevered response from his followers (although Aronofsky is either in on the joke or thinking of Bardem’s writing as a stand-in for scripture), but there’s an unsettling degree of truth to the idea that even the most idealized form of romantic love will never be enough for an artist, who will always long for their work to spread wider, cut deeper, and explode into an all-consuming mania that overrides the reality of life itself. And then they’ll want to wake up the next morning and start the process over again.

Jamie Righetti, Social Media Editor

There’s so much going on in “mother!” that it’s almost hard to know where to begin, except by acknowledging that it’s an allegory for something. Much has been made about Lawrence being Mother Earth, with humanity wearing out its welcome in her home as the worst houseguests ever. Sure. There’s also humanity’s tumultuous relationship with religion, and faith as the catalyst for some of the most catastrophic events in history, particularly during one of the film’s most jaw-dropping sequences.

"mother!"

“mother!”

But none of that even begins to address the strong feminist message coursing through “mother!” Lawrence’s eponymous character bemoans that she’s given everything, but Bardem’s poet knows she has more to give, and indeed she does. Throughout history, women have given their minds, bodies, hearts, faith, talents, and more only to be glossed over in favor of even the most mediocre accomplishments of men. Mary Magdalene was relegated to the status of a whore, while Peter denied Christ and became Pope. Women might be capable of literally birthing life, but too often that gift merely feeds the ego of men. Love it or hate it, “mother!” exposes the cyclical nature of an oppressive history we’re continually repeating.

Zack Sharf, Staff Writer

Only Aronofsky would even dare to make a movie like “mother!” If “Noah” gave the director the freedom to interpret his understanding of the Bible, then “mother!” gives him the tools required to write a new Bible altogether. The movie expands the New Testament into the 21st century, chronicling human history’s victimization of Mother Earth from Adam’s creation to the time of modern warfare and the global refugee crisis. “mother!” is split into two halves, with the first made up of events from the Old Testament: Adam (Ed Harris) and Eve (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive and commit the original sin (shattering Bardem’s crystal), their twin boys are Cain and Abel, a sink explodes and causes a flood. The second half is the New Testament updated to our chaotic times. The imagery Aronofsky evokes in his climactic sequence brings to mind Abu Ghraib, the Iraq War, the European migrant crisis, and more. The differences between the halves are not subtle — the first finds Lawrence’s character slowly losing patience, while the second is a complete violent assault — but that’s Aronofsky’s way of showing just how rapidly our world has gone to hell in the last century, and why we have no one to blame but ourselves. “mother!” is an indictment of humanity, a scripture that chronicles the raping of the earth across centuries.

Anne Thompson, Editor At Large

Aronofsky wrote this movie at a fever pitch over a long holiday weekend, 70 pages fast. That’s what it feels like, a dream, without logic, rife with nightmarish exaggerations. Remember those anxiety dreams where you’re in a strange house full of people and you’re throwing a party but you didn’t shop and you’re still wearing your nightgown? That’s the feel of it, and like a brainy movie like  “Inception” you watch it intently, brow furrowed, as you try to figure out what the hell is going on.

Aronofsky throws you off balance from the start. The movie begins with a burning house with a beating heart that magically resurrects via a magic stone. We learn that interior designer Lawrence has rebuilt the house after a fire. OK then. She’s worried about her famous poet husband (Javier Bardem), who is having trouble writing. When she gets anxious, she drinks a strange yellowish potion that resembles laudanum, and calms down, but things get weirder and weirder. By the time we get to the end, the small question marks have become very large, and whether or not we have picked up on all the Biblical and ecological references along the way, the religious tenor of the finale is undeniable.

This is no horror movie. No. It’s more like Aronofsky meets Salvador Dali or Luis Bunuel (they were friends). It’s a Surrealistic Pillow. It’s the year’s best movie to watch high. But it’s not something to literally pick apart at the seams. That takes all the fun out of it.

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