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Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an explosive retelling of creation in fire and blood

Theologies and mythologies twist and burn in a horror story about making and unmaking.

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!
Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!
Paramount Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

After an early screening of his 2014 film Noah, Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel talked about their deep dive into Jewish tradition to find new color for telling a story that in the Bible is only about 40 verses long. One story they recounted was an old account of the creation and the flood that suggested God created and recreated the world, over and over again, wiping it away in an apocalypse every time until finally he decided he’d gotten it right. This, they said, was the basis for their movie having a God (reflected in Noah himself) who repents of his anger and pledges to never destroy the world again with a flood.

This story seems to have taken root in Aronofsky’s psyche, along with all his other obsessions — the horror of being trapped in a female body under the thumb of domineering men, the duality of light and darkness, the explosive relationship between mankind and the planet, and the mystical, cyclical nature of being. He dredged it all up and plunged it into his latest movie’s bleeding heart: Mother! is a mad fantasia of fire and water and insanity, a spinning, flaming plume that is not here to make you like it, though it wouldn’t mind if you decided to just bow down in worship.

Mother! has a clear central metaphor drawn partly from the Bible

Note: Some spoilers for Mother! follow. Read on at your own risk.

The central metaphor is hardly hidden in Mother! An old house with a round layout lies in a field, surrounded by trees, no roads leading up to it: a tranquil Eden. Inside lives a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her much older husband (Javier Bardem), a famous poet who can’t shake his writers’ block. While he paces and agonizes, she painstakingly restores the old house, to which she has a sort of biological connection.

“I want to make a paradise,” she says. (You don’t say.)

Then one day a man (Ed Harris) shows up on the doorstep and stays the night, despite the woman’s hesitance to let the stranger in. The next day the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. The couple are intrusive, inserting themselves into the placid life of the poet and his wife, asking invasive questions and making themselves entirely too much at home. Eventually their two grown and feuding sons (real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and start fighting in the house. The woman is horrified by the intrusion.

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!
Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!
Paramount Pictures

To go on in detail would be to spoil the fun. But in case you haven’t caught on, this is imagery drawn directly from the Bible, and it requires a certain watery apocalypse to get things back on track — not, however, before the seeds for a new life and the poet’s newest work are planted.

Mother! pings back and forth between the placid perfection of the peaceful house and all-out destruction while treading the whole history of the world inside of a couple of hours. In this telling, though, God — or the god figure, anyhow — is a dual-natured being, light and darkness, youth and maturity, fertility and blocked creativity. And just because God the father is willing to give up his son for the warring, lusting, violent beings who crave to touch him doesn’t mean the mother is quite as willing.

Mother! is about the primal link between creativity and the world’s creation — and destruction

For Noah, Aronofsky played with Jewish mythology, but in Mother! he retwists the Christian version of the world’s history, suggesting that it’s always been told from the point of view of God’s dominant masculine nature — and without much thought to what the feminine side might think. (For centuries, God has taken masculine pronouns in most translations of the Bible, but most Christian theology still maintains that he does not have a gender, and that male and female are both created in his image.)

This is not orthodox, to put it mildly, but it makes for a completely fascinating new mythology. The woman is rendered in this film with imagery that evokes both Mary and Gaia, the Greek ancestral mother of life, but as not merely a willing vessel but a very put-upon woman who’s reaching her absolute breaking point. There are plenty of shades of gnosticism, beings that seem greater and lesser, physical ascents and descents in the house that mirror heaven and hell, bleeding floors, shattering glass, even a frog; the Egyptian goddess of fertility, Heqet, was rendered as a frog.

And leaning on the re-creation myth, Aronofsky makes one more leap: God’s cruelty — and his genius — is for his masculine nature to keep wiping things out and starting over, sucking every ounce of life and energy and creative force from the woman, who just gives and gives and gives.

That’s not new ground for horror; you can’t miss the Rosemary’s Baby overtones here. In that film, Rosemary is also stuck servicing the whims of her artist husband, who can’t imagine why she doesn’t want visitors invading her house. Aronofsky tells his version of this story on grainy stock, with muted colors and little to no music for much of the film, and casts it beautifully; Michelle Pfeiffer in particular, as a figure that’s equal parts Eve and the serpent, is the magnet for every scene she’s in.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in Mother!
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in Mother!
Paramount Pictures

But there’s so much pulsing beneath this film that it’s hard to grab onto just one theme as what it “means.” It’s full-on apocalyptic fiction, and like all stories of apocalypse, it’s intended to draw back the veil on reality and show us what’s really beneath. On one level, Mother! is also about what partners of artists have to deal with (that Aronofsky and Lawrence met while shooting this film and started dating is … confusing). And, like Noah, it’s about humans’ proclivity to wreck anything good with their own unfettered desires and selfishness. It evokes The Fountain in its view of history; it evokes Black Swan in its uncanny ability to get into the relationship between women’s physical pain and the soul.

And in case it’s not clear, this movie gets wild. If its gleeful cracking apart of traditional theologies doesn’t get you (there’s a lot of folk Catholic imagery here, complete with an Ash Wednesday-like mud smearing on the foreheads of the faithful), its bonkers scenes of chaos probably will. Mother! is a movie designed to provoke fury, ecstasy, madness, and catharsis, and more than a little awe.

But if he’s directing with abandon, Aronofsky is also entirely in control. Nothing happens in Mother! he doesn’t intend. The apocalypse works just as expected. Bits of his earlier creations are present everywhere, but this seems like it could be in its perfected state. The world he’s created feels practiced and familiar and yet entirely new. But by the end, he burns it all down. Time to start again.

Mother! played at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in US theaters on September 15.