All of director Darren Aronofsky’s films deal with the same theme: the obsession of obtaining something greater than yourself, and how chasing this goal can lead you towards madness. He’s managed to explore this theme in genres ranging from poetic science fiction to biblical epic, this core theme remaining at the centre of every narrative he tells, no matter how thematically and philosophically dense it may appear to become.
His latest film, mother!, is no different, although this time in depicting the enveloping, overwhelming insanity that comes with chasing impossible dreams, he fully brings the audience in to the chaos with him. The end result is a maddening, intoxicating and overwhelmingly divisive exploration of his favourite recurrent subject that shouldn’t be taken at face value – this is a film with a lot on its mind, even as it appears to portray the strangest home invasion in cinematic history.
In a performance that may very well be her career best, Jennifer Lawrence plays the unnamed title character (all characters are named after archetypes: man, woman, poet, mother, etc.), the housewife of a poet (Javier Bardem) suffering from a prolonged case of writer’s block. The pair appear to be emotionally distant, as she puts her efforts in creating a house for the two of them that he regards with nothing more than a shrug. One day, a man (Ed Harris) randomly shows up, assuming the house is a B&B; humouring him, the poet takes him in against his wife’s will, only for his wife (a joyously passive aggressive Michelle Pfeiffer) to move in too. Lawrence’s character starts suffering from paranoid hallucinations, feeling like a prisoner in her own home as the rude, unwanted guests refuse to leave – and her own husband doesn’t seem to care about her need for privacy.
This just about covers the first half hour of the film, before Aronofsky leads the viewer down a guided tour of insanity best left unspoiled. What is remarkable, however, is that the carnage that follows is easy to discuss on a thematic level, without actually spoiling any of the contents found within; the entire film offers multiple metaphorical readings that beg repeat viewings, even if the overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia will make it an experience many will not want to view again. The dark (and occasionally darkly comic) nature of the film initially invites comparison to Aronofsky’s similarly claustrophobic Requiem for a Dream, as well as his bananas psychological thriller Black Swan. But strip away the surface, where it appears to be a brooding, surrealistic thriller, and you’ll find that the movie within Aronofsky’s back catalogue it shares the most thematic DNA with is his unfairly maligned 2014 film Noah.
Most prominently, the theme of religion and societies being driven to madness by belief systems is arguably the core theme here. In Aronofky’s telling of the biblical tale, Noah was driven beyond the brink of madness, casually committing genocidal acts in the belief that it was God’s will – even though God’s message was one of love, peace and forgiveness. As a writer, Aronofsky has an obsession with how people misinterpret belief and value systems for the worse, all while claiming they are committing their acts out of love.
In its final half hour, mother! aims to explore how societies begin to crumble as they start to casually contradict the peaceful values on which they were founded. It does so in a manner more associated with the existential surrealism of Charlie Kaufman, a move which is likely the core factor in the widespread hatred mainstream audiences have afforded it, as it breaks further away from its psychological thriller set up to firmly flip the middle finger at modern society and its lack of moral compass. Not that the film is in any way moralistic; the final 15 minutes delivers the most graphic sequence in Aronofsky’s harrowing back catalogue – without even depicting the most offending element on screen, leaving that all to the imagination via a simple, powerful sound effect.
Aside from themes of religion, false prophets and the struggle of creation, the entire film can be seen as a parable for climate change. This is arguably the most simplistic reading, as it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that large swathes of people entering the house, ignoring the rules set for them by Lawrence’s character (named mother, arguably as a blunt allegory for mother earth) and destroying the home with their recklessness is a parable for the ongoing worldwide climate crisis.
mother! may be a box office catastrophe that has left audiences cold, but one thing is for certain: film fans will be discussing this controversial work of art for years to come. Undoubtedly Aronofsky’s best film to date, the film is unsubtle, uncomfortable and genuinely unsettling – just make sure you don’t take it at face value.