Our mother who art underfoot,
hallowed be thy names,
thy seasons come, thy will be done,
within us as around us,
thank you for our daily bread, our water, our air,
and our lives and so much beauty;
lead us not into selfish craving and the destructions
that are the hungers of the glutted,
but deliver us from wanton consumption
of thy vast but finite bounty,
for thine is the only sphere of life we know,
and the power and the glory, forever and ever,
– adapted by Rebecca Solnit
Thus read the invocation plainly printed on the thick, white cardstock that was distributed to the audience as we filed to our seats at this week’s New York premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! at Radio City Music Hall. The austere printed card was reminiscent of a prayer card one might receive at a memorial service, which was appropriate, since the single instruction given to attendees was “dress for a funeral.”
I’d read a lot of mixed reviews of the film leading up to attending the premiere, but as a fan of the complexities in Aronofsky’s films (you could write a book about the layers of symbolism in Black Swan alone) I jumped at the chance to see it for myself when a friend graciously extended an invite to the premiere. I donned my funereal best and joined the flock of mourners assembled to witness what I can best describe as an allegorical rollercoaster.
As with most of Aronofsky’s work, your enjoyment of the film hinges on interpretation and whether you are prepared to let go and allow the work to carry you on its feverish journey. The few people I spoke to after the event had reactions that ranged from “WTF” to wondering if the whole thing was a violent critique of the creative process itself.
For me, it was much more visceral and primitive than that, and thus much more appreciated as a result. Spoiler alert: it’s about the destructive and hubristic nature of the fucking patriarchy. The funeral we are called to witness is that of the one true mother: Gaia, earth, goddess, nature, creation itself—and her death comes at the hands of who else, but her devoted husband, Man, “the creator,” the possessor, the male-centered religions that have both usurped and suppressed the powers of the divine feminine as it has suited their purpose, the priests and colonizers who have raped the land, taken her fruits as spoils, exploited and destroyed them, all in the pursuit of… what? Shiny trinkets? A “higher purpose”? “Humanity”?
All of this is cloaked within a two-hour surreal and intense psychological thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Jennifer Lawrence is the titular “mother,” and the focal point of the film, as the audience experiences the entire story through her eyes. She is the younger wife of a struggling poet played by Bardem. The two live alone in a remote and mysterious house, which she is single-handedly restoring after it was presumably badly damaged in a fire. She is the caregiver in the relationship, shown preparing food for him in various scenes, and she shares a strange and corporeal connection to the house itself (which is shown through some interwoven sequences of a progressively blackened heart beating every time she places her hand against a wall)—despite the fact that it is clearly *His* house, and He seemed to have inhabited it with a previous wife. All He has left of his past life is a peculiar glistening, veiny crystal gem, which he keeps on a golden pedestal in his study.
The couple’s strange but mundane co-existence is disrupted when unexpected guests arrive at their house, played to perfection by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Bardem, like a good patriarchal god, soaks up every ounce of their attention and adoration, no matter how much they start to impose on the previous quietude, and Mother’s space and comfort. As more unwanted guests arrive, their stay soon turns destructive and deadly, but no matter how much Mother pleads with Him to kick them out, he insists that it’s his duty to share what they have. After a sudden traumatic event, there is a brief moment of peace during which the two lovers seem to reconnect, and as she wakes the next morning, she realizes she is pregnant. Fast forward several months, and just as it seems her idyllic vision of home is finally on the verge of completion, He finishes what he believes to be his greatest written work. The celebratory moment between them is shattered when we, along with Mother, realize that he had already shared the work with his agent, and throngs of his fans and followers start to appear, unbidden, at their door once more.
The rest of the film is an intensely disturbing fever dream, a relentless crescendo of devastating sequences in impossibly quick succession, with not a single moment of respite for Mother—or the viewer. He basks in the adoration of his followers, even as they begin physically tearing his house to pieces, brutally murdering each other, and threatening the life of his wife and their child, who is, of course, born amidst the chaos. After a sickening, heart-breaking scene [major trigger alert!!] in which the last of what Mother held dear is literally torn to shreds—thanks mostly to His complete disregard of her words and wishes—she finally breaks and starts savagely fighting back. An explosive climax leaves both the house and their relationship reduced to ashes, but He still declares he needs more from her. “I have nothing more to give,” she says, in a moment reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. But He insists otherwise—he needs her heart.
Mother! was a gut-wrenching display of the patriarchy’s removal of agency from women and its callous attitudes towards Earth itself, even as it is obsessed with profiting from her bounty and offerings. The male god figure touts himself as “the Creator,” yet he turns a blind eye to Mother, who is creation incarnate. She is revered by his worshippers as their poet’s “inspiration,” but they have no problem beating her, trampling her, and calling her a “whore” and a “cunt” after she calls them out for their wanton destruction of life.
As we look around our present political situation, which includes the denial of climate change despite wave upon wave of unprecedented climate events throughout the world and the irony of rooms full of men in suits making decisions about reproductive health, it’s difficult not to grasp the cautionary message behind Mother! Stop ignoring, exploiting, violating, and destroying the sacred feminine. Listen to Her, for fuck’s sake, she created you and the world you live in, and she can’t keep healing herself forever.
As the film came to an end, and the credits started rolling, I felt myself literally shaking with emotion. But the night was not done with us, as we soon realized that we were also being treated to a live performance of the closing credits song… which just so happened to be performed by none other than the legendary Patti Smith. She then recited the “Mother’s Poem” (above), and closed out the night by performing two more tracks: “Because the Night” and my absolute favorite of her songs, “Pissing In a River.” To see this silver-maned witchy woman yowl those lyrics in the flesh after experiencing the visual and emotional assault that was Mother! was magical and cathartic, and brought tears to my eyes. It was the perfect ending to an excruciating and stunning evening.