Perhaps the best thing about this season of American Horror Story was the two-minute trailer for mother!, Oscar-winning filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s newest project. The preview promises a psychological thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple who live in a beautiful, secluded mansion, which—to the dismay of Lawrence (the eponymous Mother) and the delight of Bardem (known only as Him)—is soon invaded by two strangers played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer (credited as Man and Woman, respectively).
Friday afternoon we went into the theater knowing little more than this basic premise and that the movie was meant to be an artful, fatalistic meditation on the destructive and irredeemable nature of mankind. Mother! picks up on themes of religious failure and climatic disaster introduced in Aronofsky’s previous film, the remarkably unremarkable Biblical epic Noah. In his latest project, Aronofsky returns to Judeo-Christian mythology for inspiration, this time with a heavy-handed Biblical allegory about humanity’s destruction of the earth. Even so, with a title like mother!, one might reasonably expect to see a film more obviously concerned with women. In a recent interview, Lawrence describes the movie as “incredibly feminist,” but suggests it’s “much bigger,” echoing Aronofsky’s insistence that the film engages with universal allegories that are “not male or female, it’s all of us.” But what we actually get is a (probably not very self-aware) film about how men use women.
Beyond the cut are many, many spoilers. You have been warned.
That being said, Lawrence’s character is clearly at the center of this film. The camera follows her every move and allows us to feel her anxiety over this nightmarish home-invasion which completely disrupts the paradise she’s constructed to cure her poet-husband’s writer’s block. From the very start, you can tell that something isn’t right, and when a strange dying man arrives looking for a place to stay, followed by his prying wife, followed next by their feuding sons, the un-rightness intensifies. As uninvited house guests continue to pour in, Mother feels—and is—completely powerless.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Aronofsky explains that he wanted to spin the entire film around a single emotion: rage. And we certainly feel Mother’s rage in these moments. However, her rage has no consequence. An endless procession of strangers intrude on her once paradisiacal home, and we see Mother’s rage for the film’s duration. But despite all her rage, she’s still just a woman in a cage; her anger is completely disregarded by her husband and his acolytes. As the intrusions progress from minor nuisances to full-on riots, death squads, and cultic child sacrifices, Mother’s rage and frustration become so intense that it’s physically difficult to watch.
With her anger reaching its peak, she violently slams her hands down, cracking open the floor. (By this point in the film, we’re thinking, FINALLY mother! [exclamation point!] WILL BE UNLEASHED!) Although she successfully stabs several intruders, she is quickly overcome by the mob. They drag her to the floor, violently beat her, call her “bitch” and “cunt,” and tear her clothing to reveal her breasts. Here, the film departs from any meaningful commentary on the destruction of the earth or the exploitation of women. Instead, mother! devolves into excess and spectacle—images that have no value beyond their ability to shock. By this point, the film had clearly established that Mother wasn’t respected by anyone.
She finally manages to flee to the creepy blood tunnel in the basement, grab a lighter, and seemingly set herself on fire. She’s literally burning with rage, leaving us with another dose of Aronofsky’s heavy-handed symbolism. But once again, Mother’s rage fails to produce the desired outcome. While she does manage to dispense the crowd, she doesn’t succeed in killing herself or Him in the fire. Instead, Him carries her badly burned body out of the flames and rips out her heart, crushing it to reveal a beautiful stone. In this scene, Mother abandons her ineffective rage for a last act of love, as she willingly relinquishes her heart to the Creator, an act which ultimately allows for the continuation of his narcissistic impulse to create and to be worshipped.
And so the story comes full circle, taking us back to the opening scene with a different woman rising from Mother’s place in the bed. It’s fitting, then, that promotional materials for the film stylize the title as (lowercase) “mother!”—the film isn’t about a specific woman; it’s about women as metaphors, as empty vessels, as placeholders for more “universal” themes that include “all of us.” Essentially Aronofsky’s intentions are good; he’s clearly trying to create his version of a feminist ecocritical film. Mother and Mother! had countless opportunities to reach their full potential; however, both were kept from it by self-aggrandizing male artists. And ultimately, mother! falls victim to the very exploitation it’s trying to critique.
It’s fine to create a pessimistic film that defies conventional narrative expectations, but it’s another thing to create a film that is deeply unsatisfying and hinges on endlessly suffering women. Which leaves us asking: Is a work that merely draws attention to the disposability of women doing enough to be considered a piece of feminist art?
This is a guest blog post by Kristin and Katie. Kristin Teston and Katie Turner are third-year English PhD students at the University of Mississippi. They are both short with brown hair and glasses. They both like movies. They’re basically the same person.
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.