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What’s going on in mother! (2017)? [Spoilers]

Article by: Josh Bradley


SPOILER WARNING: The following will discuss plot points and the ending of mother!. If you haven’t seen the movie, read on at your own risk.

While audiences scratch their heads at Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother! — and film bloggers struggle to find a point to the boundary-pushing brutality — reddit users seem to have figured it out (at least as far as I can tell). In his reddit AMA, writer/director Darren Aronofsky gave this hint about why the title isn’t capitalized:

[T]o find out why there’s a lowercase m read the credits and look for the letter that isn’t capitalized. ask yourself what’s another name for this character?

Ok, if Aronofsky is dropping weird, Lynchian hints like that, I’m comfortable looking into what the capitalized name in the credits is, spoilers be damned. It seemed important. I mean, I read David Lynch’s clues to understand Mulholland Drive before I watched Mulholland Drive (2001) for the first time (you may think that’s lame, but I think it’s necessary).  So I went deeper into the reddit thread and found this comment explaining Javier Bardem is credited as “Him”, indicating his character might be God.

I mean, I buy it…

A comment further down the thread hypothesized that Bardem is God, Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth (hence, mother!), Ed Harris is Adam, and Michelle Pfeiffer is Eve (I say “hypothesized” because this commenter hadn’t yet seen the movie). But I had his comment — and Aronofsky’s hint — in mind as I sat down with mother!.

As it turns out, this spoiler-y gamble paid off. While the movie contains some bizarre, upsetting happenings (truly, truly upsetting), they all mostly tracked for me and I could see what Aronofsky was presumably going for.

So, if you were one of the many people scratching their heads at mother! — or if you were one of the dozens of old people at my 4:30 P.M. screening in West LA who wouldn’t stop yelling at the screen in confusion — allow me to share the Biblical imagery that 17 years of Catholic school helped me notice. I’m willing to bet this list isn’t exhaustive.

[For clarity’s sake, I’ll occasionally refer to the characters by the actors who play them, as character names are a bit of a mystery/the whole point here.]

Not only is Bardem credited as “Him” in the credits, but I noticed his character name is the only one capitalized at all in the end credits (further suggesting the capital letter is indicative of divinity). Lawrence is credited as “mother” (Mother Earth); Ed Harris is credited as “man”; and Michelle Pfeiffer is credited as “woman”. In many faith’s, God’s name is always capitalized, as is any pronoun that refers to Him (<— like that one), thus he’s referred to as He and Him in the Bible. Plus, Bardem is a poet, a Creator. One of his final lines to Lawrence justifying his actions is something along the lines of (paraphrasing) “I am a Creator. It’s what I do.” And what does he call his wife? “My goddess.”

At first, it’s just God and mother Earth living alone together, but then Man shows up (again, Ed Harris is credited as “man”). Because I went in expecting to see parallels between Ed Harris and Adam, the first Man, I noticed that he’s missing a rib from his lower right side when he’s bent over the toilet throwing up in an early scene. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, as Bardem quickly moves his hand to cover up the missing rib from a concerned Lawrence, but it’s there. And lo and behold, the very next scene is the arrival of Michelle Pfeiffer (“woman”). In the Bible, Eve, the first Woman, was formed by God from Adam’s rib.

This is about as far as the hints and hypotheses I read about beforehand took me, but once I accepted the allegorical nature of these characters and this set-up, suddenly these otherwise-confusing plot points made perfect sense.

There’s a clear Forbidden Fruit allegory in the mysterious crystal that Bardem won’t let anyone else touch. Once Man and Woman break it (even though it happens off-screen, they make a point to say that Pfeiffer’s the one who broke it, as Eve was the one who first ate the Forbidden Fruit), Bardem boards up the room, his study, banishing them from paradise (just as God banished Adam and Eve from Eden).

That would make Harris’ and Pfeiffer’s two sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) akin to Cain and Abel, which perfectly tracks as one kills the other. Also notice that Domhnall Gleeson, the one who kills his fictional (and actual) brother, Brian, is credited as “older brother”, and the fratricidal Cain is older than Abel in Genesis.

At the gathering of mourners, Ed Harris turns to Bardem for Words of comfort (just as so many people turn to God’s Word for comfort in bereavement). My ears perked up about an hour later when a preacher repeats Bardem’s Words of mourning verbatim to comfort the crowd after the baby dies (more on that later). That’s sort of how Scripture works, isn’t it? Preachers repeating God’s Word to people at a time of grief?

And…other times.

Later, there are plagues. The repeated and inexplicable appearance of blood is like when the rivers of Egypt turned to blood. The light bulb explodes (darkness), a random frog appears (frogs), a fly dies at mother’s window (locusts maybe?), and of course, their first-born son dies.

Once there are too many people crowding the house (/the Earth), the Flood happens, because the goddamn sink isn’t braced yet, you fuckers. The people go away, and they’re finally alone again. Earth and God.

Then, He starts writing, because He’s inspired by everything that just happened to them. And it’s a hit! People worship Him! Like… literally worship him. It’s likely no accident that the work people are worshipping is both (1) a creation story (the story of Him creating the house/Earth) and (2) a poem, as poems are often written in verse form, just like the Bible. I took this all to mean that His great work is actually the Old Testament, which, in a weird, surreal way, puts mother! in the same category as Adaptation. as a movie that (in some ways) is an adaptation of its own creation.

As much as I love the Gleeson brothers, I feel like we missed an opportunity for Cain and Abel…

Obviously this isn’t a perfect analogy (e.g. the Old Testament doesn’t end with the Flood), but still. Suddenly there are dozens of hangers-on all over the house again; they baptize each other with ash and build shrines to the poet, the Creator. The next half hour or so is open to interpretation (as we lose a bit of the Bible allegory), but I think Aronofsky is taking us through the darkness of what humanity has become while still staying within the confines of the story he’s telling. For example, he can’t exactly depict a Holocaust or genocide inside a single house, but he can bring in militarized police and escalate things to a full-on violent military exercise, and we stare right in the face of the dark depths of humanity (until that face literally explodes before our eyes). And I think people being executed with black bags over their heads — by Kristin Wiig, of all people — certainly qualifies as some of the darkest depths of humanity.

Eventually, God gives humanity his only Son, whom they worship but ultimately kill and… consume. Part of me sympathizes with the confused elderly people in my screening yelling at the screen and whispering to each other; I can only imagine how baffling and disturbing the literalization of the Eucharist must’ve been for someone who didn’t recognize it for what it was.

And after they kill the literal Son of God, what does Bardem say about it? “We have to forgive them.” Knowing how God reacted to humanity killing Jesus in the New Testament, I knew it had to be this way. Lawrence/mother, understandably, had a much more difficult time with this reasoning.

Hard to blame her, tbh

So… what’s it all mean?

That was the question still running through my head as the movie was drawing to a close. An allegorical Bible story depicting the Creation and Fall of Man (and all that implies) is interesting, but like I said: I know the Creation story. Most people do. So what’s Aronofsky getting it by retelling it in such a surreal, literalized way here?

If Jennifer Lawrence’s character really is supposed to be “mother Earth” (and I think she is; she referred to herself as such in an interview with Seth Meyers), then I think the point of it all is a commentary on how horribly humanity treats our planet. The house is a stand in for the Earth, and mother takes excellent, loving care to make it a home, and humanity comes in and trashes it multiple times. We’re rude to Mother Earth, ungrateful, greedy, and we take and take and take and take from her, until we eventually just beat the ever living shit out of her (in one of the most upsetting scenes I’ve seen in a long, long time).

Even though I was aware of the movie’s apparent cipher and was able to unpack some semblance of an overall metaphor, that didn’t make the brutal beating scene or the baby’s death scene any easier to watch; I had to cover my eyes. Does the metaphor justify the brutality? I’m not one to say, but it at least gives the brutality a purpose.

When taken at face value (how a lot of people seemed to have taken the movie), it’s about an egotistical artist who gaslights the hell out of his devoted, loving, soft-spoken, patient-to-a-fault wife. She puts up with more and more and more and more, and the audience (and Lawrence) just can’t understand why he’s being so unreasonable. Even if we step outside of the Biblical allegory entirely, I think this is still a pretty interesting — albeit surreal — movie about the destruction the artistic process can render on those in its wake, including and especially the people who want nothing more than to love and support and share a life with that artist (in this case, Lawrence). From this perspective, Bardem’s egotistical, gaslighting artist character is a clear stand-in for Darren Aronofsky himself, making it a particularly personal (and meta) story from a man who happens to be currently dating Jennifer Lawrence and who recently had a sad, public divorce from actress Rachel Weisz. When Bardem apologetically tells Lawrence that he has to create, what does that say about Aronofsky? Is he admitting something about himself? When Bardem’s character apologetically tells Lawrence that he needs the people around, that despite her pleas, he can’t send them away because he needs their love and support, what does that say about Aronofsky? More interestingly (returning to our Bible allegory), what does such a statement mean coming from God Himself?

And that’s the other answer to my rhetorical “What’s all mean” question from earlier. By telling an allegorical story about the Creation of Man through the lens of Mother Nature as a neglected wife of sorts to God, Aronofsky can begin to explore thought-provoking ideas. Mother Nature doesn’t want Man around (Lawrence wants to send Harris and Pfeiffer away), but God does, for reasons He can’t quite explain. That’s supposed to make you stop and think; God’s decision to make Man was at the expense of Earth’s well-being. Interesting thought. Bardem eventually admits He needs Man and people around because He is addicted to praise. That’s supposed to make you stop and think. The ending could be interpreted as a climate change metaphor; mother Earth has been so horrendously mistreated by mankind that she ultimately sets herself (and the Earth) on fire, killing every human in the process. Coming from Aronofsky, who’s been a vocal climate activist, this metaphor is hard to ignore. And the cyclic, regenerative nature of the story, as is finally revealed in the final (and first) seconds of the movie, implies a certain…replaceability in humanity. Yikes.

Again, I don’t mean to imply that an explanation for the horrendous brutality justifies its existence, and if you object to some of the content in mother!, I don’t blame you. But  in order to fully understand the movie for what it is, whether you want to critique it or appreciate it, you at least have to know what you’re watching.

Josh Bradley
Josh Bradley was once literally a rocket scientist, and now splits his time between the Criterion Collection, his YouTube channel, and a blank CeltX document. He has trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles and recently learned how to use a coffee maker.

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