This essay will openly discuss details of mother!, and is meant to explore its symbolism. If you want the film to remain a surprise, do not read the following.
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was released on the 15th of September to mixed critical reviews, box office failure, and widespread audience scorn (it is one of the few films in CinemaScore‘s history to receive an “F”). It is one of the most oblique, confrontational films to come from a major Hollywood studio in a long time (a charge that is made more frequently than it perhaps warrants). Forget the gentle, navel-gazing existentialism of Blade Runner 2049. In comparison, mother! is downright aggressive. Whether as praise or as criticism, many have described it as one of the world’s more ambitious student films, complete with its self-satisfied Bible allusions, obvious environmental symbolism, and arch, nightmarish sense of compressed time. Needless to say, mother! is one of the best films of the year.
Some of the immediate messages of mother! are self-evident. It’s easy to see the Biblical allusions. Javier Bardem’s character is clearly God (his character is credited as “He”), while Jennifer Lawrence is the stand-in for Mother Nature. The house itself is Eden, Earth, or a pure Earthly paradise that will be overrun with humanity. The crystal that God keeps in his study is the Forbidden Fruit of Eden, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are the Adam and Eve stand-ins, while their sons are clearly Cain and Abel. There is a literal flood that scares people from the house, paralleling Noah. The people who are constantly invading the Edenic home are a stand-in for humanity in general, while some of the people are interpreters – or misinterpreters – of God’s word. When God and Nature have a child, of course it’s a stand-in for Christ, and what happens to it is a grisly imagining of the ritual of communion. The Biblical allusions are plentiful and, to a certain eye, may be obvious.
The function of mother!, from that viewpoint, seems to be to place ancient Bible stories in a modern, recognizable context. Here is a view of God and Nature and how their relationship may be seen as tempestuous at best, and wholly one-sided at worst. God has created the Earth, spreads people on it, and brings the Earth to ruin. People stomp all over the Earth, don’t listen to nature, worship God (depicted as a negative thing from Nature’s perspective), and eventually lead to the ruination of the planet. Taking the imagery one step further, one can also easily glean an environmental message from mother!. Nature simply gives and gives, and humanity takes and takes until the world ends and everyone is dead. The physical abuse Nature suffers at the hands of humanity – and there is a brutal beating at the film’s climax – may be a parallel for the way humans trash the world with pollution on a regular basis.
But neither of these interpretations of mother! seem to get to the bleeding, salient heart of the matter. The Bible allusions seem to be little more than a backdrop for the film at large. The environmental messages are mere a byproduct of its imagery, and are certainly not the film’s central focus. No. mother! appears to have much more on its mind. mother! may be a powerful polemic against patriarchal thinking in general, and how women have been historically abused since long before day one.
God is often depicted as being male in many, many forms of religion and theological thought. Never mind that the Bible contains several instances of God as female, humanity has latched onto God as being a “father” or a patriarchal figure. A King and not a Queen. That man, as a result, has been culturally and religiously infused with everything we carry in ourselves about male-ness. That is: Fatherly power, aggression, ego, a tendency to create and lead. Female-ness, in this mode, has been relegated to nurturing, growth, creating and tending to life. Although God may be at the top of the heap, ironically, He wouldn’t have a world to tend to without Nature taking care of the basic functions of the planet and of life in general. Behind every great God, there is a woman, forced to live in His shadow.
The God character in mother! is benevolent, arrogant, wrathful, and prone to abusing his wife. At the film’s outset, God creates a new wife for himself (Lawrence), and will, perhaps predictably, eventually lead the world to ruination. Nature will explode herself in a basement fire, unable to stand the abuse any longer. God will then rip out her heart, create a new Forbidden Fruit, and simply reset the whole scenario. God’s little experiment didn’t work, and Nature was unable to withstand His demands. Female-ness done in by the demands of male-ness.
The Bardem character is a stand-in for God, but he could just as easily be a symbol for the patriarchy. This is easy to accept, as many see the church to be a symbol for the patriarchy anyway; Women, for instance, are still not allowed to serve as clergy in some religions. The patriarchy, mother! seems to be arguing, is a destructive force that encourages action and thought, but which is a catalyst for invasion, fighting, and the destruction of Mother Nature. When we ignore Nature – and by extension, womankind – we do so out of destructive self-interest. When nature reminds us that what we’re doing might kill us, we kick her to the ground and call her a whore.
Mother Nature wants peace, solitude, and gentleness. Womankind’s mere existence – in the eyes of mother! – is the reason we’re all alive; we’re all born of woman. Aronofsky, in his arch, film-student way, is explaining – mansplaining? – that society’s systemic ignoring, abuse, and marginalization of women is the single most counter-intuitive action we can engage in. Sexism is the black hole of morality. The patriarchy, represented by the ultimate male figure, God, lives only to take and take and take until woman can give no more, and then He continues to take. Why does the Father get a capital letter, while mother does not?
God and religion are simply the stage on which Aronofsky’s anti-patriarchy message is set. Indeed, mother! features a sharp criticism of religion, explores misinterpretation of God’s word, and even laments the plundering of the Earth. But, more than anything – and perhaps most timely of all – mother! is turning the patriarchy back on itself, revealing the ancient misogynist roots in all things. mother!‘s God – egotistical, blustering deity that He is – can just reset the world when everything goes wrong. We, on the other hand, might do well to treat women better.