What Is the Meaning of Mother!?

Delving into the plot, allegories, and shocking ending of one of the most surprising Hollywood releases of the year

Jennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky's new film 'mother!'
Paramount Pictures

This story contains spoilers throughout for the plot of mother!

Since it was announced, the prime selling point of Darren Aronofsky’s new film, mother!, has been twofold: that it stars one of the most famous actors working today, Jennifer Lawrence, and that the particulars of its plot are an utter mystery. Well, after months of secrecy, the movie hit theaters in wide release last weekend, and audiences are finally getting the chance to puzzle over this bizarre, chaotic work of horror.

Aronofsky’s tale is blunt, fantastical, and obviously laden with symbolism, but for me, the biggest delight about mother! is how many people have shared with me their different takes on the film’s message. My colleague Christopher Orr discussed the movie’s openness to multiple interpretations in his review, noting both the story’s biblical allusions and its apparent self-referential tone about the difficulty of life as an artist, and how monstrous creators can become. Now that mother! is out, it’s worth digging deeper into the great debate that’s already emerged over the film’s meaning.

The plot of mother! is very simple—at least until it starts getting more unhinged. It begins with a shot of a woman’s crying face in the middle of a vast inferno, after which a man (Javier Bardem) inserts a crystal into a pedestal and magically repairs the burnt home around him. Cut to: an unnamed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives in this gorgeous house in the middle of nowhere with her husband (Bardem). He’s a poet of some renown, busy toiling on his next great work (although he appears to be suffering from writer’s block). She’s devotedly renovating their home, painting the walls and such, and seems to have a mystical power to “feel” the heart of the house, by touching the walls and visualizing a giant, pumping organ.

Soon enough, another man (Ed Harris) shows up, identifying himself as a doctor looking for a place to stay. Bardem (the characters have no names, so it’s easier to identify them by their performers) invites him in and the two rapidly bond, to Lawrence’s discomfort. Harris quickly gets sick, with some unspecified ailment creating a bruise on his side. Then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, unafraid to snipe at Lawrence over the large age gap between her and her husband. Harris, encouraged by Pfeiffer, accidentally breaks Bardem’s crystal, inspiring his rage. The visiting couple’s grown-up kids (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) then show up and immediately get in a fight, with the elder killing the younger and receiving a scar on his forehead in the struggle. As the family holds a funeral in the house (while Lawrence’s agita only increases), a deluge of water, prompted by a guest breaking a fancy sink fixture, finally drives everyone out for good.

This covers the first half of the film, which, as Orr noted, you could cheekily call a “testament”: one where Bardem is a stand-in for God, Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam (down to his rib injury) and Eve (as much of a temptress as ever), and their kids are Cain and Abel, with the former killing the latter and being “marked” for this primal sin. Bardem’s magic crystal is a violated forbidden fruit, and the burst sink pipes are the flood punishing God’s early followers and wiping the world clean.

When the film’s second act begins, Bardem’s new poetry is complete and Lawrence’s character is pregnant. By the end, her baby (likely some sort of stand-in for Christ’s body) has been eaten alive by a crazed mob of Bardem’s followers. They initially burst into the house as fans of his work but devolve into violence and surreal scenes of warfare, ravaging the house before Lawrence burns it down in a fit of grief at the loss of her child. As she dies cursing her husband, Bardem asks for her love, and she assents. It comes in the form of her heart, which he pulls out of her chest and turns into a crystal that he then uses to rebuild the house again, creating a new bride, played by a new actor.

It’s wild stuff—but the Bible allegory only goes so far, even if Aronofsky himself hinted at it when introducing mother! at the Toronto International Film Festival (he referred to Harris’s character as “the man,” then added, “that’s a clue”). Lawrence’s character has no obvious counterpart in either testament; instead, she’s some sort of analogue for Mother Earth, or Gaia, an embodiment of nature and creation, with the house (which slowly gets destroyed by its callous houseguests) a stand-in for the planet itself. Or you could see her as the warmer, welcoming half of the Godhead, with Bardem representing the aloof, unknowable half. There are vague concepts of reincarnation and renewal in the film’s ending, too, more reflective of Hinduism or Buddhism than anything Judeo-Christian.

The joy of mother!, to me, lies beyond the religious metaphor of God and Adam and Eve and so on; judge it just on that level, and it feels bludgeoning from a storytelling perspective. There’s a lot more to dig into, some of it probably conscious on Aronofsky’s part, some of it not so much. He’s spoken in interviews about the environmental message he’s trying to get across, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I think [the planet’s] being undone by humanity. I don’t blame one gender over the other gender. I think it is about how people are insatiable, how there’s this endless consumption.”

But like so many films (especially one with such obvious personal investment on Aronofsky’s part), mother! is clearly also a movie about art and the creative process, one with a rather negative view of the great creator at its center. The brooding Bardem can’t help but hold Lawrence at arm’s length, sometimes storming off to write, other times brushing off her concerns about the invading houseguests (from whom he draws inspiration). Though she loves him, Lawrence can’t help but fixate on the major age difference between them, and after their relationship eventually falls apart, Bardem uses her heart—her inspiration—to build a grand new work and, with it, a new female partner.

Aronofsky is, ironically, now romantically involved with Lawrence, though they met during the filming of mother!, well after he’d written the movie. But of course, such industry romances are hardly unusual, and neither is the idea of artists writing about their own relationships; it’s just fascinating how Aronofsky has turned that dynamic into something grand, destructive, and ultimately horrifying. Lawrence’s character, at times, seems like a parody of the “barefoot and pregnant” stereotype, always padding around the house without any footwear. The actor called this a conscious choice, saying, “It never would have been right for my character to wear shoes. Nature is her creation.”

Whether you loved it or not (I was mixed on its overall quality), mother! is the kind of film that just doesn’t get a wide release in Hollywood—it’s violent, it’s weird, and it’s genuinely trying to baffle viewers and spark debate. It’s exciting to see a big star such as Lawrence use her clout to get it made, and even more exciting for a major studio to release it around the country. Though the movie’s opening weekend was pretty weak—an estimated $7.5 million with an “F” CinemaScore (which measures audience satisfaction to try and gauge word of mouth), Paramount has stuck up for the film, saying in a statement, “This movie is very audacious and brave … we don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”

The studio, essentially, deserves to be lauded for putting out a film so polarizing. Whether viewers love or hate it, they always seem to exit mother! with a strong opinion, which is more than can be said for most Hollywood blockbusters. For a movie that seems deeply unsubtle in its storytelling, mother! is still as mysterious as the misshapen, oblong crystal that Bardem creates his paradise from—different from every angle.