Horror and Absurdity of Humanity on Display in mother!
Earth’s many irreversible consequences of climate change and pollution set the perfectly terrifying scene for a film about humanity’s destruction of our planet. This is not a new concept, as it has been explored by documentaries, children’s movies like WALL-E, and sci-fi and action movies (most notably Avatar). However, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is the first notable attempt to use a horror movie as an allegory for humanity’s destruction of the environment.
In the film, Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman married to a middle-aged poet (Javior Bardem), who is struggling to produce new work. One day, a doctor (Ed Harris), looking for a place to spend the night turns up at the couple’s doorstep, and the poet invites him inside to spend the night. Soon, the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) joins him which begins a chaotic sequence of events in which more and more people are invited into the couple’s home by the poet, without him asking his wife. As the movie progresses, this often happens explicitly again her wishes. Eventually, this leads to destruction and ruin for their home, the couple’s newborn child, and for the young woman, now a mother.
Before I saw this movie, I had limited knowledge of its premise and the exact nature of its allegory. However, understood that it was a horror film about the environment. I was expecting a certain amount of blood and gore, and though those images were certainly there and were unsettling, the scariest elements of the movie were the unwelcome houseguests — the people of planet Earth.
Near the end, these invaders rampage the couple’s house, destroying it, stealing things, and above all, blatantly ignoring the wishes of the young woman who lives there. These final scenes perfectly capture the essence of a nightmare; no one seems to hear the woman as she yells for them to leave, and the situation escalates rapidly. One minute a boy and a mother come in to look for a bathroom, and the next a terrifying mob is doing an array of increasingly ridiculous things: eating the couple’s food, stealing and destroying their things, painting the walls, even killing other people in the name of the poet. The insatiable greed, blatant disrespect, and irrepressible power of humanity is the real horror of this film, as it should be in any movie about the environment.
This film also uses a biblical framework, making it not only an environmentalist metaphor but a religious one, specifically an allegory of the Book of Genesis. It was clear to me, and probably would be to most viewers, that the young woman represents Mother Earth and the man represents God. But from this biblical perspective it also becomes clear that Adam and Eve are represented as the houseguests, and that Cain and Abel are represented by their children who enter the house later in the film. Most events and all main characters have biblical parallels in the Book of Genesis, adding another layer to an already complex and thought-provoking film.
Although this film’s vision seems incredible and ambitious, there are many criticisms of it, and it would be incredibly unfair to disregard them. It almost goes without saying that the literal plot of this movie makes absolutely no sense at all, and even the allegorical meta-plot doesn’t completely stand up to scrutiny. For instance, the Mother Earth character has random bouts of pain and faintness during the movie, which she cures with strange yellow powder dissolved in water. The meaning of this is never made entirely clear. The house itself is also depicted as alive and as an extension of the young woman, and the macabre images that accompany its defilement and downfall could, to some, seem almost comical; in many instances, the house literally bleeds, and the Mother also seems to feed the house by painting the wall. The nightmarish climax of the final scenes is also completely absurd in its rapid escalation. But absurd is the operative word here. I found these elements to be intentionally strange, much like the events of an absurdist novel or play. To me, the film’s absurdity added to its impact, and emphasized the extent to which we are destroying our planet.
So, what does this all amount to? For one, it creates a film that is riveting in its performances, especially that of Jennifer Lawrence. She holds nothing back playing an unimaginably challenging role, and at one point her character even goes into labor onscreen. Her acting is so impressive that for me, part of the reason this movie ultimately worked was her raw portrayal. The film also adds a layer of feminism to her character, who is portrayed as a woman being taken advantage of in many ways. She is constantly ignored by her guests, disregarded by almost everyone, and even borderline taken advantage of sexually by her husband. She is asked many sexist questions by Michelle Pfeiffer, the film’s Eve, about why she doesn’t want kids, and if she does, why she doesn’t have them. Michelle Pfeiffer’s character insinuates that not becoming pregnant is the young woman’s fault — she simply isn’t trying hard enough to please her man. These elements, all common examples of sexism in society, add another layer to the film — one of ecofeminism, or the depiction of the Earth as a woman in the context of feminism.
This film is also unflinchingly bold in its implications. Many have said that this film goes too far, and it isn’t hard to see why. After all, Mother Earth tells all of her houseguests to leave, many times, and goes to extreme measures to make sure they do. The logical conclusion is that humanity is not fit to live on the Earth at all, and that if the Earth could speak, she would want us all gone. This is farther than even the most radical environmentalist would go; it seems not only pro-Earth, but anti-humanity. However, a closer look reveals that Mother Earth is also portrayed as kind and compassionate; in fact, people taking advantage of her kindness is what leads to the house becoming overrun. And even after the poet (God) disregards her, allows their home to be destroyed, and generally destroys her life, a major plot point that she still loves him. The film seems to say that if only we don’t take advantage of that love, Mother Earth will be happy to have us.
mother! is one of the most memorable, unique, and haunting films I have ever seen. Although it is undeniably strange and absurd, it is this absurdity that makes is relevant, terrifying, and even genius. mother! is scary because it depicts the path we are on. We can only hope we change course before we really do destroy our Mother.