An important backstory is purposefully absent for most of the screentime in “mother!” (stylized with a lowercase m). Without explanation, a series of visitors show up in front of the house of Jennifer Lawrence (referred to as “mother”) and Xavier Bardem (referred to as “Him”). The already uncomfortable relationship between the couple is exacerbated as Lawrence tries to voice her concerns to her husband, a successful poet, only to find out that he is incredibly generous towards these strangers. He not only allows them to stay, but also hosts someone’s funeral reception in their very home. Tension begins to consume the home with the growing presence of the visitors, and the film culminates in overwhelming turmoil.
This is not a story that makes a lot of sense, and the director probably doesn’t want it to. From the beginning, it is full of chaos and confusion, and none of the characters act in comprehensible ways—except Lawrence’s character, who for most of the film is attempting in vain to understand what is going on. Her role encapsulates the term “surrogate character” in the sense that she is the only person the audience could possibly identify with, and the horror of the film comes from the fact that everything else is uncertain. Director Darren Aronofsky uses close-ups throughout the film to stay close to Lawrence; the audience becomes a shadow of the character by watching unexpected scenes unfold right beside her. The camerawork also helps the viewer empathize with her feelings of insignificance. In one scene, she bends down to collect the pieces of a broken glass, and the camera recedes from her and then lifts up, making Lawrence seem smaller and emphasizing her insecurity.
Aronofsky complicates the situation by linking the “normality-absurdity” dynamics in the story and the gender dynamics between the protagonists. Disoriented in her own house, Lawrence also loses her agency in shaping it the way she wants. By contrasts, Bardem’s character is not only the root of all the mysteries, but also completely in control. He undermines Lawrence by repeatedly forgiving the visitors’ actions without consulting her and depriving her of the right to know his agenda. The superiority of his character is also suggested in other aspects of the film: the name of Lawrence’s character is lowercased in the title as well as in the credits, while Bardem’s character appears in the credits with a capitalized name. The film’s depiction of gender relationships is so provocative that the viewers might question the director’s personal beliefs, unless they think that Bardem’s character is so ridiculous that it has to be a satire.
As the film progressed, the viewer could realize that the root of all the absurdities is religious fanaticism. The spiritual status of Bardem’s character is made clear through the escalating devotion from visitors. Celebrators, cult-like followers, activists, paparazzi, and militants make their way into the home in reaction to Bardem’s writing, to the extent that a war actually waged in the living room in one scene. A majority of these visitors then turn violent as various groups fight for space in the house. The horrified mother tries to adapt and understand the chaos that has become her home, as she witnesses strangers shove, shout, imprison, attack, and murder one another in almost every room while the story moves towards the consuming conclusion.
To reiterate, “mother!” intentionally begins without solidity so that the viewer lives with and builds fear alongside Lawrence’s character. One may watch the beginning of the film and assume that it is about a home invasion or a haunted house. The core of the story emerges much later, and the viewer might not be ready for it.
—Staff writer Daniel P. Rivera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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