Depending on whom you ask, “Mother!” is a tragic opus detailing the destruction of the environment; “Mother!” is a minimalist retelling of both the Old and New Testaments; and “Mother!” is an intensely self-critical indictment of how artists treat their friends and families; or “Mother!” is either brilliantly feminist or deeply misogynist.
None of these interpretations are necessarily wrong.
More than anything, though, “Mother!” is about the ways in which an audience takes ownership of art, rendering the artist obsolete.
Throughout the film, Him (Javier Bardem) defines himself as a creator. The man is a famous poet, rendered sexually impotent by his inability to write. Although he seems to have willed his wife, the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence, (n)ever better), into existence. Mother never seems to have had a life beyond the remote manor they call home. No one mentions her past, and her only goals are to please her husband and to continue to rebuild his house, which burned down at some point before the beginning of the film. She has nothing — and nowhere to go — if she leaves Him.
As the film’s first act begins, the arrival of Man (Ed Harris) threatens the couple’s tranquil existence. Mother clearly wants Man to leave them alone, but he turns out to be a fan of Him’s work, and the poet, relishing the validation, invites their guest to stay the night.
The next day, Woman (Michelle Pfieffer) — Man’s wife — shows up at the house and sets in motion the destruction of the “paradise” mother has built. Her surprise arrival leads mother to burn the eggs she’s making for breakfast, Woman dishevels the pristine kitchen while making alcoholic lemonade, and so on until she finally commits the film’s “Original Sin.”
Pfieffer’s scenes are easily the best in the film. Seemingly asked to embody both Eve and the Snake, her antagonistic conversations with Mother, while light on action, still brim with more tension than most mainstream films ever manage.
As more and more guests fill up the house — first for a wake, later for a book release — Aronofsky begins to show his hand, again and again. As the film’s impressively-directed second half escalates, the auteur’s choice to singularly show the film in mother’s perspective — the film is made up of almost all shots of Lawrence’s face or ones from her point of view — traps you in a nightmare. Indeed, the final half hour might be the most uncomfortable experience I’ve ever had at the movies.
Him’s fans have come to a surprise book-launch, secretly orchestrated by the poet’s publisher (a deranged Kristen Wiig, of all people). His words, which he claims to have written for Mother, have touched hundreds upon hundreds of people, who all begin to enter the house.
The poet’s words — which we never see, but which seem to be about everything and nothing belonging to everyone and nobody — speak to them — to them alone. They begin to take from the house, destroying it, to each have a piece of Him. The house swiftly bursts into chaos of astonishing proportions, with Him unable (nor especially willing) to try to calm his fans, despite mother’s pleas.
The biblical and environmental allegories, in particular, are apparent and entirely accurate, but Aronofsky never decides which allegory to pursue, allowing plenty of evidence for a variety of interpretations. The audience for the film will see “Mother!” in a variety of ways, just as Him’s poem touches each of his fans differently. Him, almost enthusiastically, bestows control over the interpretations of his work.
Now that Aronofsky’s own creation is out in the world, it does not matter what the auteur tells anyone about the piece of art he has so carefully molded. It’s no longer under his control.
But that’s only how I feel about the movie.
Maybe Aronofsky would hate this interpretation of his film and tell me I’ve completely misunderstood his work. But really, why does that matter?