“Mother!” Of God?
As far as I’m concerned, Darren Aronofsky is the best film director working today. The auteur behind movies as diverse as “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan,” and “Noah,” Aronofsky creates works that blend surreal imagery, wrenching performances, and complex spiritual motifs.
“Mother!,” his latest, is no exception—as Ben Winter recently noted. Indeed, it might be Aronofsky’s most ambitious work yet—and will undoubtedly be the most controversial. It’s impossible to discuss the themes of “Mother!” in any coherent way without spoiling the whole plot, so here’s a quick summary:
The Woman (Jennifer Lawrence) awakes in the home she shares with her husband, the Poet (Javier Bardem). The house is lovingly maintained by the Woman, who periodically finds herself overcome with visions of a beating heart within its walls. For his part, the Poet suffers from writer’s block.
In his study, the Poet keeps a crystal shot through with streaks of flame—the only object he saved from the flaming ruins of his childhood home, which stood on the same ground as their current abode. When two mysterious visitors (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) stumble onto his doorstep, the Poet invites them into the house…but they promptly proceed to shatter his beloved gem. As the Poet prepares to expel them from the premises, the visiting couple’s two sons burst into the home, fighting one another tooth and nail until one kills the other. Blood is shed, permanently staining the floorboards.
All begins to spiral into chaos. The Woman watches in anguished impotence as her home is degraded and destroyed, and as the Poet’s attention is increasingly drawn to his houseguests rather than to her. When the Poet finally manages to write again, drawing the attention of the world, more and more guests swarm the premises. Yet the Poet has eyes only for his public.
When she becomes pregnant, the Woman fights to spare her child from the Poet’s grasping visitors, but cannot stem the tide: her baby is snatched from her arms, killed, and ritualistically devoured. The Woman’s fury boils over, and she deluges the home and its intruders with rivers of flame.
At long last, quiet reigns. The Poet cradles the burned Woman in his arms, and they finally reaffirm their love. Then from her chest the Poet draws a new crystal, interlaced with light, and begins to create anew.
If it’s not already obvious, Aronofsky’s film is a direct retelling of the Old and New Testaments through a novel lens. His protagonist (the Woman) is a feminine personification of Nature itself—albeit a Nature that does not include human beings. The Poet is clearly a stand-in for God Himself; similarly, the first houseguests are Adam and Eve, their sons are Cain and Abel, and the Woman’s child is Jesus Christ.
Many will criticize “Mother!” for what they see as its deeply unflattering portrayal of God. As the film builds to a crescendo of horror and the Woman’s wrath kindles, the Poet begs the Woman to forgive those who have killed their child. “He will come back!” someone declares. In the context of the moment, it sounds like a ghastly lie—a mocking swipe at Christianity’s hope of the resurrection.
But immediately after Good Friday, wouldn’t the promise of resurrection have also sounded like a gruesome attempt to avoid a horrifying reality? Wouldn’t the call to forgiveness have sounded insane, outrageous, hopeless? The closing moments of “Mother!” depict brutal judgment…but also a restoration, a recreation, and a reaffirmation of creation’s orientation toward its Creator. The final frames of the movie are identical to its first, suggesting that in time, the child of the Poet and the Woman will indeed return—and the story may end differently.
That leads to another, even more vexing question posed by “Mother!”: why would God create the world, or human beings, at all?
“Mother!” doesn’t offer much of an answer, but nonetheless critiques with searing force the theological idea that God’s ultimate end must be “His own greater glory.” The Woman (nature) is ignored, damaged, and brutalized, while the Poet has eyes only for his adoring admirers. (It’s worth pointing out that the Poet’s audience craves his pronouncements, but cares nothing for the life of his son.)
Are there any alternatives to the “maximal glory” theory? Indeed: theologians in the Radical Orthodoxy movement have argued persuasively that the world is an aesthetic expression of God’s own ultimate beauty—a gift of love infused with lasting intrinsic value. This starkly contrasts with any view of God as a cosmic emperor who merely craves the worship of subordinates. It’s those subordinates who are the real villains of “Mother!”: Aronofsky is deeply critical of human beings’ treatment of the natural world.
Just like “Mother!,” Aronofsky’s last film “Noah” posited a radical disconnection between human beings and nature. Time-lapsed scenes of evolution were juxtaposed with images of luminous humanoid figures in a sacred garden. To bear the image of God, in Aronofsky’s telling, is to be something radically separated from the rest of the created order: man, for all his flaws, is no mere beast.
“Noah” was accused by some viewers of being a crypto-Gnostic allegory. But here, in a dazzlingly ironic inversion, “Mother!” takes the most anti-Gnostic position imaginable: it celebrates the value of the pre-human natural order that God declared “good” in Genesis 1:25, and condemns humans as the agents of that order’s destruction. Misanthropic? Perhaps. Gnostic? Not in the slightest.
And Aronofsky really isn’t off the mark entirely. The essential mystery of the Incarnation is that God took upon Himself a human nature–-an act infusing the created order with indescribable value and beauty. Why were so many outraged by Jesus’ claims to be God? Namely, the disconcerting possibility that the almighty Creator would limit himself—would participate in, with, and under His creation—in such an intimate mode. Might not Jesus’ bodily death be attributed, at least in part, to his killers’ horror at the possibility that God could participate in His creation in so deep a way? And might the casual despoiling of nature be an offense against the God who, through the Incarnation, forever imbued His created order with a sublime dignity?
These are just a few of the questions Aronofsky demands his viewers confront, and they are not easily answered.
And one can find value in even the most uncharitable, unsubtle reading of “Mother!” If Aronofsky’s film is simply a cry of rage against his God-character, it is also a recognition of supreme divine reality, reflecting a profound inclination towards an Absolute Good who stands above all human-crafted images of God. Every prior film in Aronofsky’s oeuvre reflects this longing for the transcendent, and “Mother!” is no exception. Both his Poet and his Woman are driven to seek beauty and harmony in their respective creative work: the Poet through the words he pens, and the Woman through the home she seeks to transform into “paradise.” Aronofsky’s cinematic world may be shot through with blood and horror and fearful encounters with the Ultimate, but there is no nihilism or apathy to be found. What sort of movie is more destructive to human flourishing: a film that probes and challenges God’s ways in the tradition of Job, or a fourth “Transformers” sequel?
In short, “Mother!” is a work of great ambition and theological sophistication that will almost certainly not find the audience it deserves (viewers have generally given it an “F” grade). And there’s something disconcerting in the fact that so few professional critics seem to have picked up on everything going on beneath the surface; that lack of biblical literacy is scarier than anything in the movie itself.
This is not a story for all audiences. Most won’t choose to subject themselves to such a strange, jarring experience. But love it or hate it, “Mother!” is an unforgettable return to Aronofsky’s God-haunted world—and we need more audacious films like it.