Whoo boy are we in for a fight over mother!. Firstly because the trailers and marketing are MASSIVELY misleading—it isn’t a horror film or a riff on Rosemary’s Baby. And secondly because it’s the kind of film designed to be upsetting and polarizing, and is open to many interpretations. Some readings on the film are more bullsh*t than others, and this is not a movie meant to be enjoyed or considered, it’s a film meant to provoke and divide. In some ways, it’s a very mean film, way meaner than something like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, because unlike Deer, mother! is not surreal. It’s open to different interpretations because it throws a lot of allegorical spaghetti at the wall, not because it’s making particularly big narrative or emotional leaps. It is, in fact, basically a Bible story papered over with a terribly obnoxious relationship drama.
Characters have no names in mother!, which is the first sign of exactly how pretentious this movie will be. I enjoyed Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, imperfect as it was, because it feels like an artist wrestling with something. mother! is a thematic successor to Noah, but it doesn’t feel like Aronofsky wrestling with anything, it feels like Aronofsky bragging about how he figured everything out and how smart and clever that makes him. There’s a real strain of unpleasantness in mother!, and it has nothing to do with graphic imagery or gore or even the uncomfortable meta-layer in which a director focuses his camera on a muse he ends up f*cking (although on that meta layer, mother! is uncomfortable).
In one reading, mother! is, like Noah, about God and Man and creation and death and resurrection. Religious imagery is all over mother!, with Javier Bardem representing the creator and Jennifer Lawrence standing in for Gaia, and the creator’s sunlit office, walled off from visitors, representing Eden. There’s an apple in the form of a delicate glass keepsake, a Man and Woman (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) who ruin their idyll, and even Cain and Abel show up (real life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson—as always, Domhnall Gleeson is impossible to look away from when he’s on screen). This is a very generous read that gives mother! the benefit of the doubt.
A less generous reading is that it’s about celebrity, and how much it sucks to be famous, how fans and the public take and take and take until there is nothing left to give. There is a Brilliant Man who ensnares an Ingenue who inspires him to new heights, but who he sucks dry and leaves abandoned, taking even the one thing she can create that he can’t, destroying her in the process. (Again, meta-uncomfortable.) The Les Miserables-style finale in which their home is overrun is either speed-reading 20/21st century history, or representing the clamoring public and how there is no privacy or refuge to be found once you’re known to the world, how all that awaits is inevitable downfall and destruction. (It’s pretty much like the Britney Spears episode of South Park.)
Both readings—and I’m sure several others I haven’t thought of—are possible. mother! is not a film about any one thing. It would be a stronger film if it was planted more firmly in its allegory, but the multiple possible understandings are a deliberate choice, no doubt. mother! is meant to make us argue, meant to spur debate about which theory is the correct one, and who is most right in understanding. And that’s fine, if it weren’t so goddamn transparent about it. But because it is so transparent, mother! feels like it thinks it’s smarter than the audience, and it’s just not. Aronofsky tangled with religion more effectively in Noah, even if it is the less-perfect movie, and he dealt with art and celebrity to greater effect in The Wrestler and Black Swan.
A film can be vile, it can be upsetting and unpleasant—nicety is not required of great cinema (or even good cinema). But mother! isn’t just unpleasant, it’s vain and willfully provoking in the manner of a middle-schooler seeking attention. It wants to make us fight and to that end, Aronofsky succeeds. Many people will loathe mother!, but a few will fervently defend it, and everyone will argue over what it means. And all of us are suckers for willingly subjecting ourselves to Aronofsky’s pretentious faux-mindf*ck.