Warning: spoilers for the movie mother! follow.
Eliza: So the movie mother! was...something else.
Eliana: I am shook.
Eliza: I am...confused? Infuriated? Discombobulated?
Eliana: I'm coping by Googling as many references as possible: there's the Genesis story, and I kept thinking about The Giving Tree, which is already depressing for a kids' book. But this movie takes things to a whole new, bloody level.
Eliza: Yeah, and it was nearly impossible to avoid chatter in the ether that the whole thing is a warning about our present path to destroying the environment.
Eliana: Yes, the director, Darren Aronofsky, has been very clear that our big takeaway should be "We are all doomed — unless we stop effing up the Earth."
Eliza: After two viewings, though, I'm struggling to keep the metaphors straight. Is Jennifer Lawrence the Virgin Mary, or Mother Earth, or just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him not to be a monstrous piece of sh-t to her all the time?
Eliana: Yes and yes and yes. And also a muse. I cannot shake the feeling that, intentionally or not, this movie is all about the casualties of fame culture. Lawrence has been picked apart for years, and is literally picked apart in this movie. And Aronofsky is both the writer and her real-life beau...
Eliza: Perhaps a deep, deep, deep dive will allow us to rest easier at night?
Eliana: Let's do it!
Note: We refer to the characters as they are listed in the credits: Lawrence as Mother, Javier Bardem as Him, Ed Harris as Man, Michelle Pfeiffer as Woman, Domhnall Gleeson as Oldest Son and Brendan Gleeson as Younger Brother.
God, The Virgin Mary and Jesus
Much of the story tracks with the Book of Genesis. Him and Mother can be read as God and the Virgin Mary, and their baby—whom Him’s maniacally devoted followers kill and then eat, in a twisted take on communion—as Jesus. (2 Kings 6:29: "So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said unto her on the next day, Give thy son, that we may eat him: and she hath hid her son.”)
It’s also worth noting that in this interpretation, Him is vain and enjoys being worshipped, even when it means his muse is abused in the process. He aligns with perceptions of a vengeful, Old Testament God more than those of a forgiving, New Testament God.
Adam and Eve in Eden
The idyllic home in which Him and Mother live, it follows, is Eden (“I want to make this place a paradise,” she says at one point.) Man and Woman, in turn, are Adam and Eve. Man enters Eden first, and has a wound on his back, perhaps from the place from which Adam's Rib was extracted. (Though that doesn't explain why the toilet is clogged with bloody human tissue.) Next, Eve appears and together they commit original sin: destroying the crystal they’re told not to touch could be a stand-in for tasting fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Man and Woman fornicate as Adam and Eve were forced to once they lost their innocence.
(Side note: In some interpretations of the Bible, the fruit Adam and Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge was not an apple but an etrog or citron, a lemon-like fruit. In the movie, Woman more than indulges in the fruit, making fresh-squeezed lemonade and carelessly leaving a mess of tapped-out lemons strewn about the kitchen.)
Cain and Abel
The two brothers fighting, in this reading, represent Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons. As the story goes, the firstborn Cain kills Abel out of jealousy when God favors his younger brother’s sacrifice, just as Oldest Son kills Younger Brother because he is jealous of Younger Brother’s favored status in their parents’ eyes.
As humans flood into the house (Paradise), they commit all forms of sin. The baby (Jesus) is sacrificed in order to save mankind. But it is not enough. Humankind’s wickedness brings on the impending apocalypse, which in this case includes an actual flood, when the broken pipes fill the house with water. Finally, humans are destroyed and earth is rebuilt anew as in the story of Noah and the Arc (a tale which Aronofsky mined in the 2014 movie Noah).
In another possible reference to Genesis, Him’s followers have a black substance rubbed onto their foreheads by one of his disciples, in a manner reminiscent of Ash Wednesday. The tradition derives from a quote from Genesis: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Unlike those who fast for Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, the worshipers in the movie do not seem inclined to give up their hedonism. In the movie, of course—perhaps as a direct result of that wanton lechery—it doesn’t take long after this scene for all the occupants of the house to turn to dust. Aronofsky could be underlining the importance of piety or simply stating that humanity is beyond redemption.
Another reading of mother! is that Mother, with her bare feet, dislike of bras, earth-tone Eileen Fisher wardrobe and hippie-granola braid, is a stand-in for Mother Earth. All of the unwelcome guests who take her for granted, overlook her hospitality, grope her and invade her space, represent humankind—which, it’s no secret, is number one in the ranking of forces endangering the planet.
Mother may also be one with the home she has created—hence the heartbeat she can sense within its walls—so the destruction of the physical space is akin to humankind’s disrespect for the planet, as well: The bee that buzzes in circles until it falls dead on its back. The pipe that bursts, flooding the kitchen. The trash strewn about by careless people who never bother to clean it up. (See: Great Pacific Garbage Patch.)
When Mother half-jokingly refers to the mess as an “apocalypse,” her word choice conjures what could happen to the Earth if civilization continues on its current course. In the end, humans take so much from Mother Earth that she must turn around and destroy everything, blowing up everyone in the house and starting over fresh. This represents the fate of humanity as global warming makes the world literally too hot to sustain life.
But then why is Mother Earth reborn (as another actor)? Perhaps the message is that God can always create life again, but not on Earth. Or perhaps Aronofsky is commenting on the cyclical nature of existence. This has been as popular a theme on recent television—"time is a flat circle" in True Detective; "all this has happened before and all this will happen again" in Game of Thrones—as it was in the religion and philosophy of the pre-Christian Western world, from the Eternal Return thesis of ancient Egyptians to the Greek and Roman Stoics.
Editor's (who also saw, and relentlessly researched, mother!) note: For a movie that has so many decidedly Judeo-Christian references, that the film ends on this cyclical-time note is particularly discordant. If early Christianity is notable for anything, it's for popularizing the idea of linear time, the life of Christ as Hegel argued being a singular, unrepeatable event from which history moves ever-forward.
The Giving Tree
At the end of the movie, Mother tells Him, “I have nothing left to give you,” which is found verbatim (intentionally or not) in Shel Silverstein’s 1964 book The Giving Tree. The book tells the story of the relationship between a boy (who grows into a man) and a tree (with conversational English skills) that gives the boy everything it has to give until it is only a stump. In the case of the movie, Mother has given Him inspiration for his writing, companionship, a home and, most precious of all, a baby. But just as the Giving Tree does have something left to give—his stump as a seat—Mother also has one thing left to give Him: her heart, or at least the crystal encased inside of it, which presumably allows him to start over.
The famed children’s book is, of course, an allegory for the selfish way in which humanity treats the environment.
If humans take and take from the Earth without showing gratitude, they often exhibit similar behavior toward celebrities—not least of all, Jennifer Lawrence, whose private photos were hacked in 2014. Like Lawrence and other celebrities who were, in a sense, stripped bare and deprived of their rights to privacy and dignity, Mother has everything, including her newborn child, violently taken from her because the mob feels they're owed.
The Divine Comedy
There are more than a few possible references to Dante’s 14th-century epic poem. One, the frog that hops out when Mother is exploring the hidden chamber of the cellar, might invoke a fable in which the frog represents demons. (Frogs, of course, are also one of the ten plagues in the Exodus story.) The cellar, and the chamber in which Him takes the crystal from Mother’s heart, may represent some of the nine circles of Hell.
Additionally, Man’s lighter has a Pisces symbol on it. In Purgatorio, which follows the Inferno, Dante sees the light of the Pisces constellation as he enters purgatory. It’s not entirely clear why Man (or Adam) would be carrying a Pisces symbol—but then again this movie’s mixed metaphors are half the fun (or torture, depending). What's more, Mother's qualities could be read as resembling Beatrice, whom Dante is traveling through the kingdoms of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven to find. Both are the object of pious, if not exactly lustful, love.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Some critics have pointed out the similarities between the first half of Aronofsky’s film and the 1962 Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The claustrophobic setting and small cast gives the early scenes a play-like feel. And like Virginia Woolf and other plays that deal with bickering couples stuck in an increasingly claustrophobic house, the first act of mother! deals with the politics of manners and how to deal with unwelcome house guests.
The isolated house and toxic relationship between Him and Mother is reminiscent of the sort of romance on the moors the Bronte sisters excelled at conjuring up. The heroine takes abuse because of her desperate devotion and is constantly being told to calm her nerves. (After all, women in Victorian times were always being labeled “hysterical.”)
The Feminine Mystique
While there are no direct references to Betty Friedan’s seminal 1963 work on the restless boredom of housewives, whiffs of her argument can be detected in mother!’s storyline. While she has a vocation—renovating the couple's home—much of her purpose is in the service of Him and his career. Perhaps at one point, this might have been enough for her, but as his lack of gratitude and attention rankles more and more, she appears increasingly to question her position.
Taking it a step further, the movie can be read as not only what life is like for a woman whose main work is to support a man, but what it’s like for a person who serves as the main support or inspiration for an artist. Beware becoming a muse. This basically takes the adage that behind every great man is a great woman to its most psychotic conclusion.
Home Invasion Horror
In the myth of Pygmalion (as told by Ovid), a sculptor carves a woman out of ivory and then falls in love with the beautiful statue. He prays to the goddess of love to bring the statue to life, and she grants his wish. The story—building on an even more ancient tradition of myths involving mankind attempting to imbue inanimate matter with intelligence—has inspired works like The Winter’s Tale, Pinocchio and My Fair Lady. mother! could be interpreted as a twisted take on the myth: The artist (Him) creates a live woman (Mother), but then rather than devoting himself to her, he takes from her.
Children of Men
Much like in the final scenes of the 2006 dystopian film Children of Men, in mother! a pregnant woman must navigate through a chaotic war zone. She tries to bring life into the world amid blood and carnage, infertility and wastage. The camerawork towards the end of mother! is also reminiscent of that last sequence in Alfonso Cuarón's film.
Our editor is convinced that this Hieronymous Bosch painting explains the entire film.
Editor's Note: The 15th century Dutch painter's painting "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things" indeed explains a lot. The house's floor plan in the film is clearly an octagon: assuming one side for the front entry way, there would be seven rooms on the ground floor, each one corresponding to Catholicism's mortal sins. The panels representing the Four Last Things could be read as the other areas of action in the film: "The Death of the Sinner" is the couple's bedroom; "Hell" is the sepulchral basement; "Glory," shown by Bosch looking like a royal court full of bureaucratic ministers, is Him's office; and "Last Judgement" is the unseen, light-filled landing area at the top of the stairs.
While there’s no direct evidence to support the frequent tinkling of wind chimes as anything other than a chilling sound effect, it’s worth noting that they were used in ancient Rome, and affixed to pagodas in India and China, to ward off evil spirits. The chime of metal instruments also announce the arrival of angels in Christianity. (In this case, clearly, they don’t work like that.)
Bloody Hole in the Floor
The bloodstain that keeps reappearing at the spot where Oldest Son murdered Younger Brother frankly looks more like, well, a vagina than a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. It’s also—like a vagina during menstruation or childbirth—bloody. Mother sticks her fingers in it and it opens up further, dripping blood into the cellar (one of the circles of hell?) below. Mother is connected to the house—she, unlike the other characters, never leaves—so perhaps this is a metaphor for her own fertility or presages her bloody end. Whatever it represents (or doesn’t), it’s impossible to un-see.