Conversations about film
December 19, 2021
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2017
Jim Wilson: I always love talking about movies with you, James, so I’m eager to have you back on Collokino. Welcome. How are things?
James Westbrook: Hey, Jim, thanks for having me back. Things are going well. Work wise I started filming the interviews for a true crime show this past weekend. Otherwise I’m just trying to finish up a few personal creative projects before the year ends and, of course, watch a bunch of movies. How are things in Colorado? Any big holiday plans?
Jim: All is well, thank you. My brother and his family are traveling from Cape Cod to spend Christmas in Boulder, which I and my parents are really excited about. It’s been too long since the whole family has been together. I love my brother madly, so can’t wait to see him. How about you? What are your plans? And what’s this true crime show?
James: That sounds like a great time. My plans are similar, except I’m my family’s traveling transplant. I’m going back home, to Missouri, to see my parents, siblings, and some members of the extended family. I’ll be back in Atlanta by New Years, though, to ring in 2022 with my girlfriend.
The true crime show’s nothing special; it’s boilerplate, dime-a-dozen murder porn. This is the 4th season of it I’ve worked on, and it’s the closest I’ve currently got to a day job, just one that involves listening to retired homicide detectives recount grizzly murders. If that doesn’t say Christmas cheer, what does?
Jim: Alright. I could spend hours asking questions from the little you just said, but we have to turn our attention to the matter at hand, which is the film mother!, from director Darren Aronofsky. It was your idea to go with this title. I know you hadn’t seen it before, but what attracted you to talking about it? What other Aronofsky films have you seen?
James: mother! is a film I’ve been trying to watch since, well, since it came out, basically. I distinctly remember a college friend of mine, and not one of the film nerd ones, calling me shortly after its theater run and excitedly asking if I’d seen it and what my interpretation of it was. I regrettably hadn’t, and after I missed its moment in the zeitgeist it fell off my radar for a bit. When you emailed me about doing another Collokino that phone call came back to me, and once the idea to discuss mother! lodged in my mind I found it as hard to remove as an errant houseguest.
With mother! knocked out the only Aronofsky feature I’ve yet to see is Noah. Of his other work I think Black Swan is my favorite; it’s also the one that mother! most reminds me of. Both focus themes of duality and inner torment within heavily stylized metaphors centered around the escalating breakdown of a female protagonist, and both wring a huge deal of their tension from yoking us to their central character’s fragmented perspective, forcing us to really feel their anxiety right along with them.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. This was a rewatch for you, right, Jim? How did you feel about mother! the second time through, and did your opinion of it this time differ from your original impressions? What’s your relationship to Aronofsky’s other films?
Jim: I wouldn’t say I have a relationship with Aronofsky’s films, though I’ve seen most of them. He’s a powerful filmmaker I enjoy, though he’s not a personal favorite. I loved Requiem and Black Swan, though mother! Is the one that’s the most memorable. Watching it again helped me sharpen some of my interpretations, none of which I yet trust. This film fucking stresses me out, dude. It worms its way into some little crevasse in my psyche and makes me shiver. It’s awful. But that doesn’t detract from how much I respect this film. Whatever Aronofsky is getting at here, which is where we’re inevitably headed, is at last secondary to the urgent visual and dramatic saturation of the film.
Care to set up the story?
James: mother! opens on a small, crystalline object being placed on a pedestal by Him, a poet played by Javier Bardem. From the crystal comes life: the burned-out ruin around it reverts to a stately mansion in an idyllic countryside, no other signs of civilization around it for miles. There Him and his wife, Mother, live in tranquil solitude; he tries to write and she renovates the house, until one day a doctor mysteriously shows up at their front door claiming to be lost. Him insists he stay the night despite Mother’s objections, then, when the man’s wife shows up shortly after, insists she stay, too. It’s soon revealed that the man didn’t end up there by mistake: he’s a super-fan of Him’s work, and was determined to meet him before the doctor’s imminent death.
Mother is appalled; Him is flattered. She wants to be alone with him to start a family; he wants more people, more stimulation, more, more, more, anything to keep him from his work. Sure enough, he gets his wish. First, the doctor’s adult sons show up to argue about the man’s will, and, after the argument escalates to the younger son’s murder, Mother’s house soon becomes the site of the dead man’s wake, as a posse of cinema’s rudest grievers make themselves a little too at home. It isn’t long before they’ve turned the house into a flooded wreck, and, in a rage, Mother kicks everyone out. A huge fight between Him and Mother erupts, which quickly leads to angry, passionate sex. The next morning Mother is pregnant and Him has gotten back his will to write, his “inspiration”. Peace is, for a short time, restored to the house.
That gets us into the film’s second half, which, without going into detail, largely resembles the first but taken to new, ghoulish extremes. Once Him’s newest book is released, a flock of fans descend on the house, throwing it into chaos as their demands and desires, none of which Him can (nor wants to) say no to, become increasingly unhinged. Him thus becomes more and more distant from Mother and his soon-to-be-born son, even as the fans place increasing strain on Mother and the house is overtaken by violence and horror.
That’s the literal plot, anyway. mother! is about as brazenly metaphorical as a work of art can be, but before we start throwing around interpretations let’s talk about the film’s emotional bedrock. What’s your read on Him and Mother’s relationship, Jim? Do any moments between them stick out to you, or seem especially significant in light of the film’s later, more twisted turns?
Jim: Well, their relationship, their marriage, is of the standard paternalistic variety. He speaks for her, and dismisses her when she speaks. It’s thoroughly loveless, it seems, borne more out of habit and comfort. I’ve seen it enough times now to know that theirs is an eternal relationship, so that informs a lot of how I read them. But yeah, paternalism. He really only gets off on himself. I love how Aronofsky names her Mother and him just Him, not Father. Identities and roles. What are you thinking?
James: My thinking is along the same lines, although, as you say, the eternal nature of their matrimonial duet clearly says something about them, and I suppose we’ve already run up against the film’s ending, so I’ll go ahead and spoil it: Mother, having finally had enough, engulfs the house in an inferno, reducing it to a ruin. In the aftermath Him, completely unaffected by the blaze, pulls the same crystal we see in the film’s opening out of her charred body and then he places it on the same pedestal, restoring the house to its original form and, in essence, returning us to the film’s beginning. The big reveal, then, is that mother! is a loop, a repeating series of events that happen seemingly endlessly. With regards to that loop and their marriage, I think that the loveless comfort aspect of their relationship you’ve identified only really applies to Him; my read is that Mother isn’t actually aware she’s stuck in the loop, that her memory of its events are wiped each time, which makes her even more woefully ill-equipped to deal with the heavy ennui Him carries with him during the film’s first half. He’s playing some cosmic game that makes him feel alive, while she’s just trying to refurbish her house and spend time with her husband (hard things to care about if you have foreknowledge of where the loop leads). One could argue that, in terms of their needs and desires, Mother is much more “human” than Him is, the one person that keeps their relationship even a little grounded, and I think a big part of that is that she’s living in the present and he isn’t.
Now, I do have another read of their relationship, but it basically gives away my thesis of mother! as a whole, and before we open that can of worms: you mentioned how intensely stressful you find this film, and I can’t say I disagree. What about it gets under your skin so badly? Walk us through why mother! is the most anxiety-inducing fever dream this side of one’s teeth falling out.
Jim: That’s easy. I relate strongly with Mother, someone who takes care and makes things. She rebuilds the home around them, perpetually, despite the world’s carelessness. The waves of home invasions directly assault her hegemony as keeper of the realm. She loses control – a complete, albeit involuntary, abnegation of her matrimonial commitments. She loses control and is tragically destroyed. It creeps me out, that loss of control, the death of innocence on such a casual and convenient scale. But there’s a deeper decay going on, something to do with everyone outside, and their invidious intent, all of which is welcomed by Him.
I can dance around the obvious in this film ad nauseum, or we can just get to the obvious analogies. It’s a religious parable about religious parables, where a more-than-virgin Mary is deceived into surrendering her son to the supremacy of a petty tyrant, otherwise known as God. It seemed only right that Mother’s baby should be literally eaten by Him’s devotees. What’s it called, Communion?
The Cain and Abel story reconfigured as a murderous dispute over the details of Daddy’s final will and testament is lovely.
What’s your different read? Give it up. Throttle’s all the way open at this point.
James: I’m glad you brought up the religious reading of the film, because I think it’s both fairly unimpeachable (I hadn’t considered that communion metaphor, but man, spot on), and ties into my own interpretation. To wit, mother! strikes me as Aronofsky visualizing the emotional journey of the artist throughout the creative process. Under this read, Him and Mother are different facets of the same mind; Him is the cerebral and egotistical parts of the self, and Mother is the more emotional and earthly ones, such as love, compassion, and stability.
At the loop’s beginning the house, the mental landscape upon which these two warring instincts struggle to coexist, is mostly put together, and Him and Mother live in something like harmony, with one major caveat: Him is incapable of writing. He feels stuck in this moment of peace and simplicity, unable to create. Once the doctor comes on the scene and his true identity is revealed, the nature of Him’s pathology becomes clearer; he’s less interested in the work than the ego boost he gets from it, yet he plays his actions as if they come from a place of empathy. He convinces himself, and tries to convince Mother, that “they had nowhere to go” and therefore had to stay with them, and that only Him, the great artist, is capable of giving them what they need. Yet as Mother tells him after she forces the mourners out:
“No, it’s not about them! It’s about you! It’s always about you and your work! You think that’s going to help you write?! Nothing does! I rebuilt this entire house wall to wall! You haven’t written a word!”
This moment of conflict leads to sex, which leads to pregnancy, and from that pregnancy Him is suddenly struck by inspiration and begins to write again. Despite how little regard the creative mind has for the simple joys of life without them it eats itself, obsesses over the public’s reaction to its work instead of putting that energy somewhere healthy, like family or the act of writing itself (an interesting aside that feels relevant: I read a short interview with Jennifer Lawrence about why she and Aronofsky, who became an item after this film wrapped, broke up, and the biggest reason she mentioned is that Aronofsky was incapable of focusing on anything but his art; they’d come home from press junkets about mother! and she’d want to relax and think about something else, while all he’d want to do is talk about the movie). In other words, only when the empathetic mind and the cerebral one meld is good work able to be made again.
That moment of perfect, serene creation goes to shit pretty quickly, and the precipitating incident is Him pushing his work out into the world again, inviting others in instead of cherishing the beauty of his life with Mother. Soon the house is overrun again, the crowd representing both the public that devours and distorts the artist’s work and the anxious thoughts the creative mind lets in when it opens itself up to the fickle whims of the world. The people strip the house bare, demanding parts of it as if it were their own (“the poet says it’s everyone’s house”), and even begin to paint the walls, as if they were forcing their own interpretation of the artist’s inner life onto them. When the house descends into a nightmarescape it’s the artist’s agent who Mother first sees executing those around her, a clear representation of capital contorting art into more commercially acceptable shapes.
Finally, the emotional self, Mother, has had enough, and forces the thoughts of others from her mind by burning her own mental architecture to the ground. Him, though, remains, and as he carries Mother away he says “Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was.” He then pulls the crystal, the thing that restores the house, from Mother’s charred body, and it’s made clear that the thing that always inspired Him was that same serenity that Mother offers and wants, even as he tries desperately to get away from it as soon as he has it. The act of creating, especially when used to further our worldly ambitions, is as selfish as it is self-destructive; it might sometimes create a beautiful object like the one Him pulls from Mother, but just as often it rips out and destroys our emotional roots. Even if we do claw our inner peace back from it, as soon as we give it an inch it will inevitably destroy it all again, over and over and over.
Now, I don’t think this is a perfect theory. For one, there’s no obvious reasoning behind the two brothers fighting over the will, whereas the Cain/Abel metaphor (and, by extension, the doctor and his wife as Adam and Eve) is way cleaner and clearer. I prefer to think of the two theories as working in concert, that in trying to visualize his conception of God in abstract terms, Aronofsky injected Him with some of the worst parts of himself. It’s a deeply cynical religious metaphor that also acts as a self-examination/evisceration of Aronofsky’s own desire to create “life” from nothing. God is a tyrant, just as the artist is a tyrannical God in his own realm, and no less petty and shallow than the big man upstairs. Just as some of us put too much stock in faith, others put too much stock in creativity, when both are poor substitutes for those simple, human joys we too often relegate as we chase success.
Jim: I love that. It’s true, the creative mind is a selfish monster. I think the religious reading and the creative reading are perfectly in tandem with one another, and, I like to think, is how Aronofsky envisioned it. As an atheist, I suspect that much of what we humans inject into our invented deities is the need to believe that all of this, this world, this universe, was deliberately created, and for that tremendous effort, the creator should be recognized and praised, since we ourselves demand to be praised and worshipped for making things. It is, after all, one of the most remarkable things humans do – creating things out of nothing. Maybe one of the most compelling parts about mother! Is how it examines the intersection of worship and pride, or how pride should forbid worship, when in fact it only encourages it.
That Him and Mother are dual facets of the same mind is an angle I hadn’t considered, but it makes complete sense. They do seem inseparable, while often in conflict, as poles naturally are. There’s something really elegant about that interpretation. In the spirit of that, then, how do you think Mother’s visions of the house’s, or the world’s, decaying heart play out with regards to Man and Woman (the doctor and his wife, portrayed by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively) accidentally breaking the crystal, which, we learn in the finale, is effectively Mother’s eternal heart? There’s definitely a decay narrative going on there. From the beginning, decay and collapse seem built in to the equation, as if they’re inevitable. Do you think Aronofsky is suggesting that all creation myths are irreversibly diseased?
James: I think your description of religious thought, its emphasis on making creation itself feel deliberate and intentional, is spot on. What unites the two threads of mother!, then, is their interest in creation, both the manic highs and terrible follies of it. Is it any wonder that Mother, the character whose perspective we share and with whom Aronofsky wants us to empathize most, doesn’t create anything herself (aside from life itself, of course) but rather maintains what’s already there? As you say, we tend to worship the creation of new things, but acting as the steward of an already created thing, keeping it steady and healthy even as it naturally erodes, is arguably a much more noble job, partly because of how thankless it is.
Interesting question. If we take the house as the third player in the Him/Mother relationship (the Holy Spirit to their God and Mary, if you will), then the house’s decay is, naturally, the decay of Him and Mother, too, both their relationship and their selves as the outside world lays siege to their fragile peace. Under the religious metaphor this symbolizes man’s corruption in the garden of Eden, which would, I suppose, make Mother’s eternal heart the apple that corrupts the first couple (I wonder if, along with representing the finer inner virtues and acting as a Mary figure, this also makes Mother a stand-in for mother Earth herself; a content, self-maintaining person/planet that’s corrupted by mankind’s insistence on dominating her/it. If you want to get really saucy about it, that arguably makes Mother’s actions at the end a metaphor for climate change). Even as Mother fights for the serenity Him insists on destroying, it’s her inspiration to Him, her eternal heart, whose destruction sets in motion their relationship’s disintegration.
Your suggestion that the film thinks all creation myths are “irreversibly diseased” is astute, and I think ties in to what I was saying above about Mother acting as a steward. Entropy and death are natural parts of life, and the best we can do is shore up our defenses against them. They can never really be stopped, and while Mother retains and rebuilds as best she can, Him’s writing, the thing that inspires Man and Woman to come to their house in the first place, causes that entropy to accelerate exponentially. Creation corrupts. Not only that, but the very idea of a creation myth is a “beginning” myth, and beginnings always have ends. Arguably it isn’t just creation myths that are irreversibly diseased, but all myths; just by starting a story you’ve doomed it to end.
Another symbol we haven’t discussed yet but that shows up a few times is fire. There’s the inferno that ends the film of course, and the furnace in the house’s basement that Mother’s eyes are perpetually drawn toward. Most interesting, though, is Man’s cigarette lighter; Aronofsky draws our attention to it a few times, especially when it falls in the floorboard’s cracks, and in the end it’s what Mother uses to light the house ablaze. The fire that Man brings to the house is what Mother later uses to extinguish his presence there (maybe I’m onto something with that climate change metaphor after all). Do you think this is just classic creation imagery, the fire from which life is forged and all that, or is there more to these images that I’m missing?
Jim: Fire, yeah. The furnace, the oil tank Mother discovers behind the ruptured wall in the basement. Those moments really fascinate me, since they seem to stand outside the rest of the story, something only Mother experiences. I guess you could assign it easy properties, like Mother is saintly, meaning she’s probably insane, or simple, or something. She’s touched, you know.
By way of not answering your question, I bring up the immediately adjacent one, about the persistent blood spot left behind after the fratricide, the blood spot that eats through the flooring and entangles itself with the house’s (the world’s) foundation in some deeply meaningful way. It transitions into the first invasion scenes. But what does it mean? Fire, blood, and what about that yellow medicine Mother drinks? That I can’t get a fix on at all.
James: Funny, I actually thought about asking about the blood spot too but couldn’t find an easy way to connect the dots between it and the fire imagery. I’m inclined to view the blood spot in the most surface level way; it’s a reminder, even during the brief respite that follows Mother’s pregnancy announcement, of the corruption Him willingly brought into the house, a wound he inflicted that won’t heal, one whose presence foreshadows and melds with the chaos of the last act.
The yellow medicine I’m also a little put off by, though I think it links neatly to the anxiety Mother experiences and that permeates the film in so many different ways. There’s sensory anxiety, the way little environmental sounds are jarringly loud in the mix such that they overwhelm everything else, an effect that always occurs right before Mother takes the medicine. There’s sexual anxiety, Mother’s fear in the first act that Him is no longer interested in her (at one point Woman snidely interrogates her about her sex life, and ends by saying “If he’s not all over you, then…”, and Mother looks so devasted you’d think she’d been stabbed). And, of course, there’s social anxiety, how all the people in the film feel just a little off, a little aggressive and dismissive and condescending towards Mother, like she’s the one who doesn’t belong even when they’re in her house. Beyond all the heady thematic stuff we’ve discussed, I think mother! is most effective as an anxiety simulator, and I wonder if the yellow medicine is just another way Aronofsky ties that in. It’s a sedative Mother has to take just to stay afloat, another way Aronofsky signals that, even though Mother is the only thing holding this world together, she struggles just to exist there. It’s Him’s world, she’s just living in it. What are your thoughts?
Jim: Sounds about right. That condescension, though, the way everyone treats Mother, is the part that’s hard for me to rationalize. I know, it’s not a world where reason holds much sway, where everything is heightened to extremes, and Aronofsky’s approach to that is certainly maximalist, so it’s just a lot of excess all the time, exhausting and intensely stressful, but I still find the way everyone treats Mother puzzling. Maybe it shouldn’t be, since stabilizing forces in probably any society are always taken for granted, and undervalued, and since women and mothers have traditionally served as stabilizers, well, there you go, right? I guess I’m talking myself out of whatever complaint I was trying to formulate. What I should say is that it stresses me out and makes me angry, the way Mother is treated. I could say the same about the way I observed my own mother treated in an all-male family. So there’s probably some self-loathing mixed up in my reactions. Wow, this film is like a stiff therapy session.
You have a sharp eye for the technical craft in films. Sound, lighting, camera techniques, blocking, costumes, all that. What do you make of mother! from that perspective?
James: Agreed. I bet this was like a stiff therapy session for Aronofsky to make, too. Whether he was exorcizing the demons of the creative mind, a religious upbringing, or some kind of internalized misogyny (or anger over misogyny; to be clear, I don’t think this movie is misogynistic, though as you say it doesn’t exactly treat Mother well), torment seeps out of mother!‘s every crevice. That constant stress is actually what sticks out to me about the film’s technical approach as well. Most of Aronofsky’s films are highly subjective, plunging us into their characters tortured POVs and forcing us to really feel what they feel, and mother! pushes that style to its limit. Maximalist is a good way to put it; the heighted acting, the sickening, swampy greens and oranges of the night time lighting, the in-your-face sound mix I mentioned before. What really stuck out to me, though, was the camera, which is perpetually glued to either Mother’s shoulder or face, so we’re always looking either at her or at what she’s looking at, in a way that, by foregrounding her shoulder, always reminds us of that fact. It also gives us the feeling, with all those long tracking shots following Mother as she walks through the house, that this is supposed to be in real time, but day turns to night much too quickly for that to be the case, only heightening the film’s overall discombobulating effect. That roving camera is similar to Aronofsky’s strategy in The Wrestler but melded with the macabre visions of Black Swan, a you-are-there art film that mines the deepest wells of human discomfort and turns them into a symbol-plastered thrill ride.
If I’m the technical guy here, that makes you the acting guy. How do you feel about the performances here? Too heightened, or just heightened enough for the world Aronofsky creates? What are your impressions of Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as Mother and Him, respectively?
Jim: It’s funny you ask that, since I’m currently reading the feature story about her in this month’s Vanity Fair. It caused me to reflect a little on the many things I’ve seen her in, and how I think about her as an actor. She’s fine, you know, she’s a strong performer, but I also recognize her as a natural, someone who just does it and it’s fantastic, but she never feels really invested in it, in the role, in acting. It’s easy for her, so she always feels distant to me. Maybe she doesn’t, and probably she doesn’t, but it always seems like there’s a good amount she takes off the field with her. I suppose part of that, too, is just who she is. All that is to say that I’m never wowed by her, but neither am ever disappointed. I don’t feel I can reach her enough for either.
Xavier Bardem, on the other hand, is a genius. He manages the polar states that Him ricochets between with maddening plausibility, always believably unbelievable. I don’t know how best to describe what he does that makes him so good, but I’m always thrilled by his work.
I can entertain myself for a few seconds speculating on what this film might have been with another Mother, but that’s obnoxious, though I will mention…ahem…Kristen Stewart… But alas, she can’t save everybody’s movie.
James: I think you’re onto something about Lawrence, and I wonder if her achieving stardom by age 20 has something to do with her mild chilliness. It’s constructive to compare her to Stewart, as their career arcs (early fame in a YA fantasy series followed by a transition into more challenging fare) are largely the same, and I think there’s similarities between their screen personas, too; both excel at playing beautiful women who internalize huge reservoirs of negative feeling and hide behind a blank facade, yet Stewart doubles down on and plays into that internalization, whereas Lawrence doesn’t seem as aware of it. I think Lawrence is appropriate here, and she nails Mother’s escalating distress, but she also leaves Mother as an archetypal, symbolic figure, whereas Bardem, like you said, finds deeper wells of feeling in Him’s nastiness; you sense shards of empathy in his condescension. Even at his most egomaniacal there’s still real feeling for Mother somewhere within him, an echo of affection crying through his snide dismissals.
The last thing I wanted to hit that I don’t think we’ve mentioned yet is how effective some of the individual images in mother! are, especially those with a horror tint. One in particular stood out to me: shortly after Younger Brother is murdered, Mother descends into the house’s cellar to investigate the spreading bloodspot we discussed earlier. She sees the blood seep down the wall and over a bare lightbulb, throwing red light across the room for just a second before, suddenly, the bulb shatters, splattering Mother and causing the blood to form a door on the concrete wall in front of her. It’s an effective moment on a textual level (the death of Younger Brother reveals a darker core of the house buried under its prosaic charm, and, by extension, a darker core of Him), but it’s also just creepy as hell, the tension rising as the blood seeps down the wall and then suddenly spiking with the explosion of the bulb. It’s tense, uncanny, and abstract all at once, a decent microcosm for the movie as a whole. Any moments stick out to you that we haven’t discussed yet?
Jim: It’s a great scene, very creepy, but then after the hidden room is revealed, the tension is broken by a frog that eagerly hops out of the room. There are all kinds of funny little things going on in that scene. Accurately, the lightbulb shatters when the blood touches it, as is the case with any hot incandescent light bulb that comes in contact with a liquid. But then, by the same token, I have to wonder why that room was sealed off. It contains a large tank we later learn is full of heating oil. Does the nearby furnace not use heating oil for combustion anymore, and the tank is walled off as superfluous? Anyhow, like you say, it reveals a darker core of the house, but also provides her with the means to seize control in the end and complete another cycle. Which just made me think that maybe it’s Him who conceals the oil tank with each reiteration, hoping Mother won’t find it and bring about another conflagration. And what would happen if she didn’t?
You’ll have to forgive me, since I’m an old tradesman, and I watch all movies with an eye out for inconsistencies and errors about building maintenance, construction, function, all that. Probably for that reason, the moments that stand out the most to me are the many things Mother is doing to the house, and the fact she’s doing them all at the same time! That induces as much anxiety in me as anything else. She’s in the process of stripping and refinishing all the woodwork, which, in a house like that, is a gargantuan task. But then she’s also installing new plumbing fixtures and doing plaster work. She really needs to focus on one task to completion before moving on to the next. It’s horrifying.
I do love that thing that backs up in the toilet, squeals, squirts blood, and flushes back down. Aronofsky incorporates all sorts of horror elements that work brilliantly to amplify the already nerve-racking anxiety. Blood that seems sentient, the toilet monster, the visions Mother has when she places her hand on walls, which I interpret as the heart of the house, growing incrementally more diseased, more blackened, much the way Mother ultimately looks after the fire, along with touches of gore and body horror in the chaotic home invasion scenes; it’s all splendidly ghastly.
Two concepts come to mind from that thought, the first beauty, then interiority. There’s very little beauty in the film, visual or otherwise, in a conventional sense, except for Lawrence and Pfeiffer (to this straight guy anyhow). The film craft is beautiful, yes, but typical examples of physical, natural beauty are rare, which is significant, especially in a film about creation. There’s something to the fact that the natural world is seen only a few times, in the wooded area outside the house.
Which leads to interiority. It occurs to me that there’s little or no interiority to Him or Mother. Neither of them seem to have inner selves, at least none that the story is interested in exploring. They simply are not mysterious characters, as archetypes seldom are. All interiority is reserved for the setting itself, the house. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.
James: I hadn’t closely considered the implications of what was being revealed, but you’re right, that’s a very interesting question. To tie that in with your question about interiority, under my pet “creative mind” theory I’m inclined to view the house as yet another facet of the same mind which gave birth to Him and Mother (the subconscious part of it, perhaps), and thus the concealment of the heating oil at the loop’s beginning makes sense, since the mind is, at that point, mostly stable, and the oil, the thing that will destroy that same mind, has no use. The oil is revealed once it’s clear the mind is being brought down a dark path by Him, and by revealing it to Mother that mind is essentially planting the seeds of its own self-destruction. It’s a tacit acknowledgement by the subconscious mind that perhaps this loop, this project or moment in time or emotional path, isn’t salvageable, and that for the mind to survive it will have to end. Perhaps Mother not seizing control would be a kind of death, then? After all, it’s possible that the crystal Him pulls from Mother is only created when Mother is set ablaze by her own hand; if she’s just murdered by the mob, will that same crystal even exist? Is the crystal, the thing that inspires Him, really Mother’s essence, or is it her essence in that moment of total fury right before she burns it all down? Maybe it isn’t just Mother’s more traditionally feminine qualities that keep the house stable but also her own darker emotions, the ones willing to stand up to Him and put a stop to things even if it means her own death.
As for the lack of natural beauty, I’m inclined to view its absence as yet another sign that the world of mother! is an abstract mindscape, and that the world beyond the immediate contours of the house/mind itself is murky and viewable only from a distance. That’s just me propping up my own theory, though. Perhaps there’s also a bit of atheistic inversion in Aronofsky taking the creation myth, that most natural of all biblical/religious myths, and setting it almost entirely indoors. It’s the creation myth taking place in a man-made space, thus heavily implying the myth itself is man-made as well.
And man, you’re right, Mother really has bitten off more than she can chew, huh? If the house, Mother, and Him are all different parts of the same mind, then Mother clearly didn’t get the executive functioning skills.
Jim: Is it then maybe the doom loop of creation? God, or some direct representative of him, named Him, creates the world, while Mother creates the life that populates it. Him creates the stories, the dreams, the aspirations, that Mother’s children, mankind, consume, and the typical outcome is thoughtless worship and the ultimate conviction that whatever is created by him belongs to them. Since Mother’s baby is also his son, the son is like the poems, like the dreams created by Him for them, so therefore his son is theirs. Sounds familiar. Human creativity created its own origin story from the images it saw reflected in a pool of water. Poets are gods as much as gods are poets. They are in direct inverse proportion to one another. Mother is his muse, his inspiration. She creates what he cannot. The possible balance between their creative forces is theoretical, but never achieved. It’s a doom loop that never ends. Inwardness and self-absorption keep the loop closed, with no hope of breaking free and creating something new, or something more than the same old crystal. The pressures needed to create that crystal are preserved and intensified with each loop.
Yup, I think that’s it.
James: That’s an excellent summation, Jim, well done. The only thing I’d add is something you implied but didn’t state outright: that while Him sees his son as similar to his poems, and therefore his to give away, Mother sees the son for what he really is: another person, one that she loves deeply. Which makes Him’s betrayal, that unwillingness to look past his own contribution to see Mother’s, that much deeper. It’s a fucked up little pas de deux these two are eternally stuck in, and it’s the children, both the son who’s pointlessly sacrificed and those people who can’t look past the romanticism of Him’s stories to see the selfishness beneath, who suffer.
A quick skim of my notes tells me we’ve touched on everything I wanted to. Anything stick out to you that we haven’t hit on yet, or is our time in the doom loop coming to an end?
Jim: Yeah, great point. It’s the innocents who suffer, as always. Aronofsky’s great achievement in mother! is the sharpness and clarity with which he constructs his towering metaphors, but without resorting to simplification. He’s pointing to the core nature of the human urge to create things, which comes from our most immediate and enduring inspiration – mothers. But where that’s a selfless act of creation, the way religion seeks to ingest, assimilate, and deify it, or art can pervert, or trivialize it, is often little else than avarice.
As always, it’s revelatory talking about films with you, James. I hope we can do it again soon.
James: Agreed, mother! somehow manages to be both a massive symbolic and thematic kaleidoscope and a nail-biting sensory overload. It’s an impressive film, one with more depth than its many archetypes suggest.
It’s been a pleasure, Jim. Until the next one.