**Spoilers for mother!”**
Before the premiere of mother! at the Toronto Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky handed out prayer cards, entitled “mother’s prayer,” a variation on the Lord’s Prayer. It was a move that was deemed by many to be a stunt, a gimmicky attempt to stir up buzz. And perhaps it was a stunt in part. But, Aronofsky has always been passing out prayers, attempts to find, understand, and interpret the will and whims of God, or perfection, through his films. It’s been done through numbers (Pi), through the unsustainable high (Requiem for a Dream), the quest for immortality (The Fountain), fleeting stardom (The Wrestler and Black Swan), and most recently, in Noah and mother!, the reinterpretation of myth. We’ve defined his films as meditations on addiction, mental illness, obsession, and duality, all of which remain true. But across his filmography, particularly his two most recent films, it’s becoming clear that Aronofsky is attempting to gain some grasp on our collective spiritual experience, our confluence of transcendence and damnation, as the themes from each film bleed into each other, as myth bleeds into reality.
The first review I ever published was on 2013’s Noah, and in it, I offered up this piece of interpretation: “It feels as if this story is the seed from which all Aronoksky’s other films have sprung.” I still stand by that assessment, but upon further viewings, it would also be fair to say that Noah is the end point, the harvest to which all of Aronofsky’s other films have led. Perhaps, Noah, in its ambiguity of setting, which could easily either be ancient past and post-apocalyptic future, is both a beginning and an end to Aronofsky’s explorations. In that film, Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter portrayed by Emma Watson, says, “This is the end of everything.” Noah corrects her and says, “The beginning. The beginning of everything.” There is a recognition here of the beauty of nature cleansing the world and starting again, in a global reincarnation. But there is undoubtedly a recognition of the intense dismay brought about by the bloody process of birth and death. This idea comes around again, quite literally so, in mother! where Aronofsky expands outwards from Noah, creating a larger tapestry in which that story is merely a stitch. Noah and mother! provide Aronofsky with an opportunity to take all of those previously mentioned themes and explore them within a skewed context of a Judeo-Christian perspective, and give birth to uncomfortable, yet acutely honest accusations.
The Bible is one of the greatest horror stories ever told, explicit and implicit horror within the text itself and in the generations of interpretations, omissions, and warfare that sprung from it like an eternal wellspring. Yes, there is immense beauty in much of those words as well, words that I connect with personally, have built a large portion of my faith around, and am in no way trying to dismiss. But the horror must be recognized along with beauty, and Noah and mother! recognize this with a forceful passion that destabilizes core religious foundations in an effort to explore shelved perspectives. While Noah isn’t a horror movie, there are elements of horror within the film. Noah, weighed down by his glorious burden from the Creator, must exist as a moral fanatic, while recognizing that this stance places his own morality in jeopardy. Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Noah, who is often considered one of the most child-friendly Biblical characters (“Who built the ark? Noah! Noah! Who built the ark? Brother Noah built the ark!”) ventures into insanity. Given the responsibility to decide if man can be saved from annihilation, he has no other course but to answer no, to look out at so much life before him and decide that redemption is not only improbable, but impossible. What’s interesting about Noah’s task to prepare the Earth for destruction, at the presumed cost of he and his family’s lives, is that he believes that God will remain with him through the journey. When Tubal-Cain confronts Noah with his army at the beginning of the great flood, he says, “I have men at my back, and you stand alone and defy me?” Noah, with absolute conviction responds, “I’m not alone.” But what follows in much of Noah’s personal journey for the rest of the film is isolation, madness brewed by the storming seas, and the cries of people cast against and crawling to gain their grip on the rocks like Francis’ Danby’s The Deluge. Noah turns cruel in his pursuit of God’s will, but as a figure created in HIS image, his cruelty, though righteous, must only stem from the cruelty of God.
In mother!, this cruelty of God is reflected two-fold, and its purpose is doubly righteous. Aronofsky takes the core stories of the Bible and turns them into a domestic horror movie about male celebrity and the burden of women forced to live in their shadow. Aronofsky’s intentions are not immediately clear from the onset, in part because the camera remains focused entirely on Jennifer Lawrence’s Mother character as she makes her way through her house, a symbolic world-house that serves as the orrery of our conceivable existence. We’re given a limited perspective that isn’t given the same kind of scope and literal Biblical environment as Noah. This opaqueness simply serves to ground us in the reality of this world, to anchor us to the central conceit that this is a film about a woman who loves a husband who loves the adoration of people more than her. Near the end of the film, Javier Bardem’s character, Him, describes the two of them as light (himself) and hope (her), resulting in a multi-tiered hierarchy of deities that isn’t within the Christian canon, taking into account that the divine Trinity exists as three parts of a whole. While Aronofsky may stray from the source, his view certainly lends itself to an interesting perspective within this film. Aronofsky’s appropriation of Judeo-Christianity shares much in common with our exploration of Roman and Greek myths and our centuries long efforts to domesticate them through drama, literature, film. Yet, because those Roman and Greek deities are dead gods, while the God of the Old and New Testament, Yahweh, is very much alive in the wide-spread public consciousness, this has somehow translated into an idea of intangibility when it comes to media depictions. Yet, Aronofsky does touch, and as if he were touching an oil painted canvas of divine images, his touch leaves smudges, a purposeful mixing of metaphors.
Javier Bardem’s poet, Him, is not purposefully cruel, but his egotistical expression of love is damaging. When he lets Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), analogous to Adam and Eve, into their home he strips away the sense of sanctuary in the paradise Mother has been building. “They have nowhere else to go,” Him says in his vain efforts to assuage Mother’s rising anxieties. Man and Woman’s entry gives way to the appearance of their two sons, portrayed by Brian and Domhnall Gleeson. We see Cain’s murder of Abel reenacted within this house, a moment which we saw reconstructed through infinite time in Noah, here viewed through a different perspective. The stain of blood that the Younger Brother’s fatal head wound leaves on the floor becomes a stain of which Mother cannot rid her home of, and the mark of Cain becomes an inescapable, uncleansable burden that drives a wedge between Mother and Him. As I watched Lawrence scrub furiously at the floor boards trying to remove a stain that would not wash, I was reminded of a line from the work of one of Aronofsky’s contemporaries. In Gone Girl, Amy Elliot-Dunne says, “clean and bleed, bleed and clean,” in her consideration of women’s fraught role. As we watch Mother reconstruct this formally burned house (a result of Him’s prior failure’s), clean up after the guests of Man and Woman (the descendants of Adam and Eve), and eventually deliver a child which she cannot keep, there is a sense that Mother, deity she may be, is still constrained by the role women play. As Mother’s heart, which is the very heart of the house itself, hardens and becomes stony, the imagery Aronofsky’s uses to depict this is reminiscent of The Watchers in Noah, angelic beauties encased in rock by the Creator. The suggestion here being, that the Creator or Him traps beauty in his drive for worship.
In Noah, much of the pain that occurs comes from Noah’s shunning of his family, and it is his wife and adopted daughter who receive the worst of his anger. Noah is an interpretation of myth, but it is also domestic woe at its height. There is a shot, early in Noah, where the light is dwindling in the sky and Noah stands in the forefront while his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) stands further behind him. Noah’s future failings are exposed within this single shot. He believes that as a man it is his duty to take the burden of leadership alone, rather than as a partnership. His later treatment of his family and his resolve that if Ila’s child is a girl he must kill her to ensure no future generations of humanity, stems from his limited male perspective, his inability to even conceive what a mother might feel, because he is a tool for destruction rather than of creation. Noah, created in God’s image, has the same flaws as the Creator, or Him, in Aronofsky’s universe.
We see certain events of Noah reconstructed in mother! The party guests who arrive after the death of the Younger Brother, very much resemble Tubal-Cain’s followers in their disorganization and invasive approach. Just as Tubal-Cain himself invades the ark in Noah, the party guests invade Mother’s sanctum, turning a home into a house and upsetting the natural balance she has created within her environment. The tipping point for Mother at this moment in the film comes when two guests refuse to stop sitting on a sink that isn’t braced yet. The scene ventures into hilarity in its absurdity, but when the pipes burst and guests are sprayed with water, there is something identifiable in Mother’s rage. It was people who caused the flood, and while Mother’s anger, judged as cruelty, may have made them leave her house, it was the inability of the guests to listen, to be decent, that led to their own exile. Ironically there is no analogous Noah figure within this sequence, so we must turn to Aronofsky’s previous film. As Noah says there, “we broke the world – we did this. Man did this. Everything that was beautiful, everything that was good, we shattered. Now, it begins again.” And it does begin again, not simply life, but all of the sins as well in a cyclical sickness of human sin.
In the aftermath of “the flood,” Him, lamenting his ability to bring life into their house, has sex with Mother in an act that is decidedly an instance of fucking, rather than love making. There is a seeming frustration in his inability to create, and Mother’s inherent ability to do so. Him seems to love the idea of what creation will bring, rather than loving the act of creating something with Mother. Much of the horror in Noah, and more fundamentally in mother! stems from the treatment of women. Noah brought to the point where he’s holding a knife over a newborn baby girl comes to his senses not because of his creator, but because of his wife and daughter. We can argue in circles that it was the will of the Creator that allowed for Noah to hear them, but in terms of the onscreen text, Aronofsky very clearly points out Noah’s reasons for re-gripping his sanity. Noah is able to step back, to find partnership, while Him in mother! is not. Mother suffers abuse by way of her husband’s eager embrace of guests, who as he boasts “they have come to see ME.” But she also suffers abuse from the hands of the followers, “fans” of the poet themselves, literally so in the harrowing final act as Mother is kicked and beaten for her repulsion at the cannibal communion of her newborn. It is a rejection of Mother Nature from an environmentalist angle, but it is also the rejection of God as woman in Christian terms, and an even greater rejection of women in religious doctrine. It is so often men who abuse religion, because they are the ones who have given themselves the power to shape it. Speaking in terms of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, the role of women is limited. The idea that women are lesser within the church as a structure is made apparent, regardless of how that exclusion and dismissal is worked around in terms of creed. I’m in no way trying cast stones at organized religion, but I do think it’s important to recognize where Aronofsky is pulling from and what he is attempting to make us aware of in terms of Mother’s treatment in particular. mother! is a horror film, and horror should make us uncomfortable and push boundaries. What drives the horror of mother! is that we are allowed to witness it all from Mother’s perspective, and we never venture where she cannot or does not go. Mother cannot successfully co-exist with a God who only views himself as a sole Creator. Thus, in her horror and bitter realization of this fact, she becomes our path, and way in the experience, rather than a victim we simply watch things happen to, and she ultimately removes us from the light.
As the Mother’s paradise falls apart in the last act, and war and riots break out among the guests over their interpretation of the poet’s words, mirroring our own religious zealousness and resulting class and social disarray, Him is not disturbed by this. He, almost comically, embraces these guests, forgives them even when they kill his son in a heinous enactment of the Passion of Christ. In these final moments Aronofsky suggests that we as people are counter-productive to God’s love. We take advantage of it, and soil it, and in the process destroy each other, while God still forgives us and gives us cause to repeat our failings. There is a terrifying, a pitch black accusation that God and man cannot sync up on the same path, because we mirror each other too much in selfishness. Perhaps God’s forgiveness, his need to be loved and given attention by the many, makes us worse. mother! finds the anxiety in God’s undying love for us. As Mother destroys her house and everyone in it, except for HIM, in a wrath of literal fire and brimstone, we are left with the idea that we are perhaps in some ways, left unforgiven and reasonably so.
Through the Christian perspective, we’ve come to believe that resurrection and rebirth are good and miraculous things. But there is a reason that Christianity and returning from the dead lend itself so well to the horror genre, because it points to a lack of rest and a general decomposition or deconstruction. At the end of Noah, we see the sun pulsing out rainbows, a seeming sign that all is right and that man can restore itself. But, if we go back to the Cain and Abel scene in Noah’s stories we see that we’ve been here before, that the weapons changed and evolved but people did not. Aronofsky brings home the terror of resurrection in mother! as the burned house restores itself, and Him places the Mother’s crystallized heart on a shelf, while a new version of Mother wakes up in bed alone and wondering where Him is in her attempt to give him everything. This crystallized heart, a forbidden fruit of which a prior version had been shattered by Woman earlier in the film, sync up with Noah’s lament at the end of his film that “some things cannot be unbroken.” We know the knock at the door will come again and Man and Woman will enter, that the crystallized heart will break, and brother will kill brother, the flood will come, and every terrible thing that followed will happen again, and it’s an agonizing reality in which God cannot help us escape from, nor does he want to. Aronofsky’s films are resurrections of themselves, each asking the question of whether we can learn and truly evolve, or do we just wake up over and over again with different skin housing the same sin.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures