Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. Next up is Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (Read our previous entries here.)
Halfway through mother!, the unnamed woman played by Jennifer Lawrence comes downstairs to any homeowner’s worst nightmare: uninvited guests. Dressed in black, they start pouring into her sparsely decorated country mansion without even knocking on the door. “They had nowhere to go, so I told them it would be all right to invite some friends and family,” says Lawrence’s husband (Javier Bardem, whose character, like everyone else in the film, is unnamed). The crowd grows, and the funeral they arrived for devolves into a lively wake, then into an all-out house party.
Though it was a financial flop and seems unlikely to win any major awards, mother! may have a cinematic legacy that eclipses some of 2017’s biggest successes. I came away from my viewing of it with mixed feelings, and yet I can’t deny that the movie was one of the most memorable pieces of cinema this year—both in terms of its storytelling confidence and the charged debates over its meaning that it sparked among viewers. While I found the extended, cacophonous conclusion of mother! off-putting in its obviousness, I haven’t been able to shake my love for the quieter, dreamlike first half, which culminates in a sequence centered on one very special kitchen fixture: a sink.
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, mother! is steeped in metaphor. Its first hour feels particularly biblical, as Lawrence and Bardem’s house is visited by a strange Adam and Eve-esque couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) and then their warring Cain and Abel-esque sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson). The brothers fight and one ends up murdering the other, hence the funeral. But the mourning quickly turns to celebration, and revelers break the house’s fancy sink, causing a deluge that calls to mind Noah’s flood. The biggest delight of mother! is that almost any reading you project onto it can make sense. Of course, that’s probably the film’s biggest flaw, too: It’s at times too broad for its own good.
But the initial home invasion was where I most appreciated mother! as just a surreal, uncomfortable drama. Here, Aronofsky fully taps into the mundane, relatable terror of having houseguests who won’t leave. As the night goes on, the doorbell keeps ringing, and Lawrence keeps answering and finding new visitors. “Excuse me, could you get down from there? That sink’s not braced yet,” Lawrence says to two women perching on her kitchen’s lovely, rustic basin.
On and on it goes. The guests grow bolder, snooping into every corner of the house, and each time Lawrence finds herself back in the kitchen, there are people sitting on the sink. As Aronofsky’s camera moves through the party, every breach of decorum by the busy guests (who eventually start doing strange things like painting the walls) feels like an assault. Pfeiffer’s grieving mother understands Lawrence’s frustration, but bluntly shuts her down. “You can’t imagine what it feels like if you don’t have a child,” Pfeiffer sighs. “You give, and you give, and you give, and it’s just never enough.” Lawrence doesn’t have a child (though she desperately wants one), but she does have a curious connection to her house, and can sense its beating heart through the walls. Though more overt and violent chaos arrives in the film’s climax, the damage these visitors carelessly inflict on Lawrence’s home is harder to stomach.
“All these people!” Lawrence complains to her husband. “They’re just letting off steam,” Bardem replies. No further explanation is given for each invasion of privacy. “Just exploring!” says one stranger who barges in on Lawrence in the bathroom. “Oh, it’s your room,” says another, rolling his eyes, when Lawrence kicks him and a girl out of her bedroom. “What’s her problem?” asks another sink-sitter, who starts bouncing on top of the fixture, assuring Lawrence that “it’s okay.” Finally, the sink collapses, and the house is flooded.
“They won’t listen!” Lawrence shrieks, and finally everyone clears out. It’s a sentiment that extends beyond the Old Testament: Yes, the early humans of the Bible wouldn’t obey God, so he punished them with a deluge. But Aronofsky himself has supported a modern-day interpretation through the lens of climate change: The thoughtless guests can stand in for the humans who poison the earth and put the barest amount of effort into repairing it.
The title of mother! may refer to Mother Earth, perhaps, or Gaia, or whatever else you’d like Lawrence’s character to symbolize. But more importantly, she’s a woman, and the entire story of the film is told through her eyes. Again and again, particularly in the home-invasion sequence, Lawrence begs for help or for anyone to listen to her. In response she’s patronized, outright ignored, or casually dismissed. mother! could be a commentary on so many 2017 horrors, but its portrayal of Lawrence’s suffering hints at the movie’s most resonant message. This is a story about repeated warnings going unheard, about authority figures growing increasingly unhelpful, about how human nature seems, invariably, tilted toward self-destruction. If only we could get off the sink.
Previously: The Lost City of Z
Next Up: Stronger