REVIEW: mother! [2017]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 121 minutes | Release Date: September 15th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Darren Aronofsky
Writer(s): Darren Aronofsky

“His words are yours”

Paramount has taken pains to ensure you know as little about Darren Aronofsky‘s mother! as possible. I know this because they’ve made it very difficult to find any images with which to populate this review. Their press site has no entry. The Toronto International Film Festival site contains no stills. And my local publicist made it very clear that press wasn’t allowed to bring a plus one to the screening. I’m surprised the studio let it play TIFF and Venice at all since that only means word will get out. But I’m not surprised at the maneuver considering the film does ask for your blind investment. As soon as I start discussing it, the mystery begins diminishing. So don’t read this until you’ve seen it for yourself.


Look out the window and tell me what you see. I don’t mean the trees or your neighbors or the sun shiny day you were blessed to wake up under. I mean beyond this utopia and your first world problems. Look at the cities being washed away by hurricanes and the genocides occurring without nary a peep from a twenty-four hour news station more devoted to spewing rhetoric that lands ratings than informs viewers. Look at how the world is crumbling under its faith that everything will be okay. History repeats itself with new wars fought in God’s, Allah’s, or Yahweh’s name. There are murders committed because a person’s God says it’s okay to kill another led by a God who’s different, toxic, evil. Humanity burns in bloodlust.

Satan isn’t the villain of this story. This isn’t about Heaven or Hell, just sanctimonious nonsense written and spoken to wrest away power in the present purgatorial wasteland that gets more vile as every lesson we should have learned is ignored. The reason we’re here isn’t because we’ve sold our souls. The men and women wreaking havoc aren’t Satanists looking to rule with dark magic and godlessness. No, our oppressors and zealots are God-fearing. They’re members of a flock who say they speak for a God that tells us we shouldn’t listen to false idols. They feed our gullibility and charity, telling us to bomb abortion clinics, preach genocide against the “other,” and purify a land in the name of a man they’ve made to look like them.

Nobody is allowed to speak his or her mind anymore. We’re now forced to become labels, brands with which to put us in easily manipulated cages so we can be shamed into believing what our respective leader wants. We allow ourselves to believe lies because they come from a self-appointed messiah, literally second-guessing our realities to cater to the whims of a false prophet preaching WE are the best for no other reason than ensuring we’ll fight tooth and nail to remain superior. Ego and vanity take control—sins start ruling our very existences because sins are what our Father used to create us in his mold. He creates. It’s His job. But in order to create beyond an origin, one must also destroy. Death is a beginning.

This is the pretext for Aronofsky’s vitriolic battle cry. These are the circumstances behind so much needless violence and fear—the latter a key tool for any homicidal maniac seeking a malleable army with which to perform his will. The difference between Charles Manson, Donald Trump, and God is a matter of perspective. The difference between anyone on a pulpit preaching a clear “right” and “wrong” plays God to whoever is willing to lend an ear and listen. They rally their sycophants and revel in the love shone upon them for their trouble. And in the end there is no peace. There is no compromise. God’s son didn’t sacrifice himself. He was sacrificed. We became so riled up in his glory that we needed a piece for ourselves.

So we consume Christ’s body and drink his blood every Sunday. We read His words and practice his lessons so long as they allow us to do what we want. God says, “Thou shalt not kill?” Well, what about when someone attempts to kill God? Can’t we defend ourselves? Can’t we take up arms and murder with impunity, repenting on our deathbeds to clear consciences and declare we did it all in His name? The lie told about God being a nurturing and benevolent figure was meant to put us in line, to be good for the chance to see Him in the afterlife. So when a child dies we hear how “God has a plan.” When entire populations are expunged, we wonder what they did so wrong.

And anyone who bucks the trend becomes an outsider. A non-believer. A heathen. A bitch that dares question the hoard and therefore the Lord it follows. Aronofsky provides this figure as a woman (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s a nurturer, protector, and muse wrapped into one that wants nothing more than the love promised to her. She’s the enlightened, the righteous follower who took God into her heart and believed what he said—believed he would cherish her and provide for her. But that’s not how religion works, is it? Gods don’t play favorites because Gods are their own favorite. Her God (Javier Bardem‘s poet) truly does love her, but why stop at receiving her love back when there are so many out there also willing to give theirs?

So we watch as He begins to slip away. She has always been his inspiration, but now it’s not quite enough. He therefore must open the doors for a stranger (Ed Harris)—a fan with his own stories and experiences He has not yet heard. The bond formed is a powerful one, the love He earns fresh, different, and necessary. But He doesn’t know his own strength. He doesn’t know what his love means to him. So another stranger arrives (Michelle Pfeiffer). They covet Him so greatly that they seek to turn his gaze from the original (Lawrence) onto them. A mistake is made, though. In their overzealousness, a totem is lost. Benevolence turns cruel if only for a second in response and murder sneaks through the cracks.

It’s the first sin that cannot be swept away. And while She continues to love Him and clean up after his growing flock while also turning their home into a palace, he remembers the purity of their coupling untainted by outside leeches spreading him thin. His gift to Her is a baby. Her gift is another house. She supports Him in the mansion, His son in her womb. And everything is back to normal. Love and peace return to their lives and creation once again comes easy. But just as She creates this baby, He creates more words. These words are more potent than the last, demanding more adulation and praise. They push her away until she’s left alone, an abused vessel whose utility is at an end.

The journey to this point as told by Aronofsky can be problematic due to its inherent misogyny of wife being dismissed, rejected, and enslaved as well as its unavoidable allusions to the director as “God.” It’s easy to look at mother! and wonder how close this yearning for widespread appeal beyond one’s own family is. Maybe this film is a commentary on the mistakes made in his marriage to Rachel Weisz—something made more interesting with the fact he’s currently dating her stand-in, Lawrence. But I think it does go further than that. It exposes his faults as a male “creator” who’s insecure and wary of women as true creators, but it also exposes the faults of all mankind. One taste of glory makes a case for immortality.

This message arrives heavy-handedly and can get repetitive in its constant dismissal of Lawrence’s character for those who arrive without question or skepticism. All He (Bardem) wants is to share His love and She seeks to stop him. She is the hero of this tale, the one person who remembers God’s promises while the others warp them to fit their own needs. Doing so increases their love for Him because they now dictate what it entails. And He embraces that increase. He gets drunk on its power and forgets to see that it is false. This is a crucial point because right when I thought I couldn’t take anymore of the indifference and disrespect shown Her, the inevitable chaos of His sleeping at the wheel arrives. And it’s glorious.

In a wild sequence of disorienting camera movements and subtle score marked by what sounds like the clanking of keys—a jailer slowly approaching to turn the lock—we watch the whole of humanity devolve into the cesspool of greed it is today. Suddenly there are a handful of zealots (led by Stephen McHattie) begging for an autograph. These increase a hundred-fold until the entire home is filled to the brim. This over-population births segmentation, bigotry, and war. Explosions erupt, military regiments march, and murder in self-defense becomes murder with intent. And it’s all in His name, the masses shrieking and crawling over themselves to take their pound of flesh from their Savior. And She watches. She sees Him lap it up. She acknowledges that He is lost.

If only the film had ended on this revelation mother! might have been a masterpiece. But as with the overt allusions to God, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus throughout, Aronofsky feels a need to spell out the cyclical nature of what’s been happening with an unnecessary epilogue. I wonder if it was written to make sure audiences knew Bardem wasn’t just playing a version of himself—a mistake since the opposite is obviously true. And that’s okay. This isn’t just a treatise on God revealing Himself as Destroyer, but also our roles in letting it happen by active participation or abject ambivalence. Tighten things up, lose twenty minutes, and retain the nuance of a metaphor we already comprehend and it can become the scathing diatribe it so desires to be.

It still worked for me regardless. Yes it’s completely pretentious, but that doesn’t make it less important as a call to arms against false prophets molding God in their image instead of vice versa. It’s also misogynistic because we need to hate everyone onscreen but Lawrence. We need to see past the empty promises and love at the true self-centered core so many in this world possess. She becomes our emissary, beaten to the point of death through psychological, emotional, and physical anguish. But she doesn’t stay down. She doesn’t take these tragedies and relinquish her forgiveness for them. She stands up for what they’ve all forgotten. She won’t be sacrificed because her life is hers to give. And He must be stopped. They all must be stopped.

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