Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do Americans deserve Visionary Movies? A Review of Darren Aronofsky’s film "Mother!"

Darren Aronofsky’s film mother! is a fascinating and insightful allegory of the relationship between creator and muse, especially as this relationship might exist on the cosmic scale. You wouldn’t know this, though, from some of the movie's negative reviews. The obliviousness or moral cowardice of those critics and the dismal opening-weekend showing at the film's box office prove why American cinema is virtually dead and why most Americans wouldn’t deserve its revival.

Be warned that spoilers for mother! follow.

The negative reviews tend not even to mention, let alone discuss or criticize what the film is about. They attack Aronofsky for making unusual artistic choices and for the movie’s alleged tediousness and obscurity. Of course, if you don’t understand something or you pretend that you don’t understand it to excuse yourself from thinking, you’ll be bored with it. Unfortunately for those reviewers, there’s no excuse for not understanding the essence of mother! Some of the film’s details are mysterious and open to interpretation, but the film's last two minutes reveal the identities of the two unnamed main characters, which clarifies all the major scenes of the movie, if you hadn’t already figured them out. Javier Bardem’s character is God, or more specifically the masculine aspect of divinity associated with Yahweh, while Jennifer Lawrence’s is his co-creating muse, a feminine Gaia-like deity whose eternal love for Bardem’s character allows him to indulge himself in an endless boom-and-bust cycle of cosmic creations. (I’ll call Bardem’s character "the Creator," since he’s unnamed in the film except for when he says at the end “I am I,” which is equivalent to saying “I am that I am,” as Yahweh says in Exodus.) Lawrence’s character, which I’ll name "the Muse," is called his “inspiration” or “muse” five or ten times throughout the movie. At the movie’s end, both of those characters are the sole survivors of a house that burns down all around them. He is unscathed while she is reduced to a blackened and mangled corpse that is somehow still alive. This indicates that the two are supernatural beings. He removes the heart from her chest, which he squeezes to form a large crystal. That crystal is the symbol of her unconditional love for him, and he uses that crystal's power to magically rebuild the house, the house being the symbol of our planet.

So by the movie’s end, it’s perfectly clear we’re dealing with a god and goddess and thus with a religious allegory of some sort. Yet here are just some of the movie critics whose reviews don’t spare a single sentence about the movie’s theological subject matter: Anthony Lane, Rex Reed, Glenn Lovell, Leonard Maltin, Dwight Brown, James Berardinelli. That’s just the entire list of the negative reviews currently on the first page of the film's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not just that they ignore what the movie’s about, perhaps so as not to spoil the surprise for the reader; no, these reviews claim that the movie itself is unclear. Lane, for example, explicitly denies that religion is Aronofksy’s subject matter, writing, “Unlike Buñuel, Aronofsky is not making sport of religion. He is plundering it for images of wrath and apocalypse…” (my emphasis). Reed, the ever empty-headed, abusive, error-prone “critic” writes, “This delusional freak show is two hours of pretentious twaddle that tackles religion, paranoia, lust, rebellion, and a thirst for blood in a circus of grotesque debauchery to prove that being a woman requires emotional sacrifice and physical agony at the cost of everything else in life, including life itself. That may or may not be what Aronofsky had in mind, but it comes as close to a logical interpretation as any of the other lunk-headed ideas I’ve read or heard.” And Berardinelli writes, “There are so many bizarre images that the movie becomes a kind-of cinematic Rorschach test – it can be whatever you want it to be.”

Mind you, because there’s no excuse for not understanding what the movie is primarily about, we must ask why the negative reviewers have pretended not to get it. The answer is just as clear as the movie’s themes: Aronofsky is indeed criticizing conventional Judeo-Christian theology. The main point of the movie is that the Creator betrays his Muse because henot Adam or Evesuccumbs to a temptation, the temptation to be worshipped by his created beings. It’s God who falls from grace, God who is corrupted and who thus creates a fallen world that self-destructs when the Muse has finally had enough of the Creator’s treachery and abuse of her. This is, in short, a Gnostic, “heretical” portrayal of the nature of creation. 

How is all this dramatized in the film? The film tells the story of Creation allegorically, by focusing on the relationship between an apparent husband and doting wife who live in a large house in the middle of a wilderness (the wilderness is symbolic of outer space). The wife (Lawrence’s character) has only two concerns: she loves her male partner and she wants to protect the house, and the story is told from her viewpoint. The male partner (Bardem’s character) is identified as a poet who suffers from writers-block. Their house is then apparently rudely invaded by another man (Adam) and later by his wife (Eve) and their two sons (Cain and Abel). The one son kills the other inside the house, and all the while the Muse wants them gone while the Creator is oddly preoccupied with helping these strangers. The interlopers leave but return with mourners for the dead son, and their selfishness and disrespect for the Muse eventually result in major damage to the house, causing a flood (akin to the biblical flood). The Muse becomes pregnant, and the poet finally finds his inspiration (since his presumed writing in the previous Creation) and writes his masterpiece, namely the Bible, which he pens on old parchment.

Later, in perhaps the movie's most riveting scene, all of human history plays out inside the house in the span of just a few minutes. A church forms to worship the poet. There’s war, carnage, debauchery, slavery, madness and mayhem. And again, all the while the Muse wants this human species out of her house/world, while the poet makes excuses for the invaders since he’s addicted to their praise of him or at least to the joy of creating things. (Like the Architect in The Matrix movies, the Creator tells his muse at the end that his function is to create.) As the invaders destroy the house, the Creator tells the Muse the house is made up merely of replaceable things, while the invaders laugh or scoff when she protests that it’s her house, that the house/world itself is precious. The humans think they own the house and have lost any conception of the Gaia spirit that sustains the place. And they quote at her the socialist, New Testament portion of her partner’s poem, which urges everyone to give away their possessions.

The invading species eventually falls silent as it waits for the Muse to give birth upstairs in her heaven or paradise with just the Creator. She does, but once again she’s protective of her baby (the Messiah) and doesn’t trust the Creator who only wants to feed the baby to his created beings, which he does as soon as the mother falls asleep. The baby is literally devoured by the humans, as the biblical character of Christ was crucified by the spiritually blind people he would have saved. That’s the last straw for the Muse: she screams for the invaders to get out of her house and slashes at them before the papal figure knocks her out and his minions savagely beat her. The Creator swoops in to save her, but she heads to the furnace in the basement and sets fire to the house, utterly destroying it and the invaders. And that’s the film's plot.

So again, Aronofsky’s idea is that God is a flawed character. God is addicted to creation and he takes his muse for granted. Prior to his creation of organic life, he lives in paradise with his feminine consort, but once he creates us, he upsets the cosmic balance and loses himself in our dramas. In more mundane terms, the artist becomes addicted to fame and fortune after he completes his great work, and thus he loses touch with his muse. That is, she abandons him when he’s no longer interested in relating solely to her, as he must when he’s lost in the joyful act of creating. The independence of the product of his labour, the artwork, triggers the manifestation of the artist’s inherent flaw, which is pride. The artist becomes absorbed in his masterpiece, which prevents him from being able to create anything else or to sustain the masterpiece, because the Muse loses faith in him and withdraws her support. In the movie, the heart of the Muse is at one with the literal heart of the house/world. She can place her hand on a wall to detect the state of the ecosystem, as it declines with the evil doings of the invading host. This is because her heart becomes the crystal which powers the matter (the empty earth and waters in Genesis 1:2) that God uses to form Creation. He keeps the crystal in a room upstairs which he jealously guards and boards up (see Gen.3:24) after the Adam and Eve characters clumsily drop the crystal, shattering it and thus predestining the corruption of their descendants who eventually fill the house with their sins.

Aronofsky thus asks the forbidden theological question: Why does God create? If God is perfect and self-sufficient, why create anything else? Wouldn’t adding anything other than him to that which exists necessarily be a demotion? Wouldn’t Creation have to be flawed in comparison to God? And so isn’t God’s misguided choice to create the universe the seed of our destruction and the true Original Sin? This is the ultimate question a monotheist can ask about the source of evil. Aronofsky’s movie, then, is a work of unorthodox theodicy. To explain the flawed nature of creation, Aronofsky divides God into masculine and feminine sides, because we understand the act of creation best when we consider what feels to human artists like their relationship to a muse.

This is why those small-minded movie critics who feign not to understand mother! dismiss the movie and avoid its evident subject matter: because they’re unable to defend the Judeo-Christian foundation of mass American culture. They can’t explain why the Creator wouldn’t have a muse or why he created anything in the first place. They can’t admit the plausibility of Aronofsky’s theodicy, because to do so would be to commit the Gnostic heresy, to alienate many of their readers, and to prompt the question of whether their secular humanism is an adequate substitute for any religious myth that preserves our dignity as a species supposedly made in God’s image. This is why mother! hits home, why it’s not universally praised by American critics, and why most American movie-goers avoided it like the plague on its opening weekend. They don’t want to face the reasonableness of Aronofsky’s critique of Judeo-Christian cosmology. Clearly, monotheism implies that the all-powerful and thus deranged, jealous, tyrannical creator God would be psychologically flawed. All of human political history testifies to that fact. From the rooftops, the Old Testament shouts that very portrayal of God’s character, as does the Koran. The New Testament waves away the problem—that God himself would have to be corrupted, so we have no guarantee of eternal happiness even in the best-case scenario of monotheism—by positing the magic trick of a god-man sacrifice, as if the proof or our spiritual blindness in the killing of saintly Jesus could redeem us or the fallen, indifferent world. As Jack Miles explains in Christ, the deeper explanation of that sacrifice is that God killed himself as an apology to us for his outrageous behaviour as told by the Old Testament, and implicitly for his failed experiment of Creation.

Maybe Americans shouldn’t trouble themselves to waken from their adolescent dream of gods as comic book superheroes, as the plethora of those Marvel movies provides the lullaby. Aronofsky’s film still earned overall positive reviews, so there’s a sliver of American society that has intellectual leanings. And if you’re interested in Western religion or in the artist-muse relationship, I’d recommend that you see mother! But just as the mythic God’s Creation is wasted on the ungrateful idolaters who miss the point by worshipping him, great, daring human art may be wasted on a consumer culture. Pearls are as nothing before swine. 


  1. I agree. The symbolism is not subtle in this movie. I'm not sure how people could not catch onto it.

    I am biased because I really sort of love Aronofsky. I couldn't believe how well he captured Selby's novel the first time I saw "Requiem for a Dream" and I must have been the one person who really loved "The Fountain," too.

    "mother!" is tough, though. The characters come across like functions at times - which is difficult, especially with Ed Harris' character, until you figure out the layers.

    But the more I think about it - as a statement on theology, environmentalism (the way we treat the Earth and the way Lawrence is treated), and as a tale about what a writer does to create, it is really a brave film. I like it as well as any of his films.

    Most of all, I like it because of how it is in part a reaction against his prior film, the big budget "Noah." There's a scene in Noah where it looks like Noah might kill Emma Watson's babies. He's walking across the top of the Ark and when I saw it, I said, "Well, this is Aronofsky, so it could really go either way." He didn't kill the baby in "Noah." In this one, of course, he makes the Aronofskian choice.

    1. One thing I didn't like so much about "mother!" is Lawrence's voice. I think she was supposed to sound ineffectual for most of the movie, so that when she finally loses her patience, her screaming has impact. But her voice was literally cracking over and over again as she kept saying, "Hey!" "You're not supposed to be there," or "Excuse me!" She sounded not just Canadian in her over-politeness, but like a teenager going through puberty. She sounded like she was losing her voice. Her performance was mostly one-dimensional.

      I like The Fountain as well, although it would have benefited from the bigger budget Aronofsky had when Brad Pitt was going to be the lead.

  2. Basically this film portrays the God of Abrahamic religions as an insane nut. The first image of the film was the death of the previous creation.

    This movie shows that God didn't learn his lesson from how earth treated mother and shows the death of a new creation. With earth being reborn into another vicious loop. Any God that would allow this is ultimately a selfish and insane creature. He doesn't care about anything except being loved. And we human beings are just a disgusting parasite that has destroyed paradise.

    Most people won't get that...and about a quarter of the people who do get the meaning will be insulted...but it's pretty much true. We've hurt and destroyed this planet. And if we're not smarter we will end up like the unwanted guests is mother's house.

  3. Here's the error in this "Aronofsky gnostic cynicism" : GOD IS NOT FLAWED, Mankind is flawed. DEEPLY flawed. and freewill is the factor that has been allowed to test ALL souls born into the earth.
    GOD (and those who honor Him) restores and renews. He does not continually allow evil to exist in His universe. He has promised, through His word and His prophets, that He will put and end to those who destroy the earth. * Revelation 11:18b.... you see, I have an advantage over most people: I KNOW THE FATHER of mother nature.

    1. Of course, in stating the orthodox, literalistic Christian view of God, you haven't engaged with the movie's unconventional reasoning, but have only begged the question.

      The movie "mother!" asks what it means to create something. Conventional Christianity says it's a complete mystery why God created a universe or else that God created out of love or generosity. The Gnostic then critiques that answer. So if God is the only perfect being, anything other than God must be flawed by comparison. So why would a perfect being choose to create something imperfect?

      If God created out of a desire to share his love with creatures or to be worshiped by them (as in the Old Testament), then that desire is the initial flaw or imperfection to which the flaws in creation can logically be traced. If God created out of love of the act of creating (as analogous to the experience of being a human artist), then that desire is the initial flaw. If God created out of his freewill, then that freewill is the initial flaw. And so the flaws of creation can be traced to God's reason for creating something necessarily imperfect in the first place.

      The movie dramatizes what God would have to be like to have created a necessarily flawed universe.

      You can say you personally know the creator of the universe, but you should know that skeptics think that sounds embarrassingly childish. I mean, you should at least be aware of that unavoidable impression you make in boasting that you know God because you read some ancient texts that were obviously written by humans (e.g. many of the Old Testament myths are reworkings of earlier texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the synoptic gospels rework each other instead of being eye-witness accounts). Jesus said you should be childish to be worthy of heaven, so you've done a good job there.

      Anyway, it's easy to assert that God's not flawed. It's much harder to answer the question of why God created a universe, without your answer implying that God's flawed after all. That's the task of theodicy as it relates to cosmology.

    2. No, actually, THE GOD/YAHWEH of the bible was/IS Perfect and created everything in its perfect form. pride, rebellion, lucifer/satan and sinful Mankind screwed everything up. NOT GOD. ... but, of course, satan LOVES to accuse and blame GOD for all this. It's called "deflection".

    3. Where did pride, rebellion, and Satan come from? Who made them? If God made freewill and freewill is perfect, why not let freewill do its thing? Why are some freely chosen actions right and praiseworthy while others are wrong, if freewill itself is part of the perfect world God made? If God created freewill and freewill is perfect, why does God punish us for using freewill in one way rather than another? If freewill is imperfect, because it can be misused, the world God created evidently wasn't perfect after all.

      If God wanted us always to follow his law, why wouldn't he have made robots instead of free creatures? What's the point of making free creatures if you're going to punish them for going their own way? That's like taking away with one hand what you give with the other. It's like giving a child a toy and slapping the child for using it. Tempting children who have limited understanding of the world, as in Yahweh's putting the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden and warning Adam and Eve not to succumb to their curiosity and naivety which Yahweh himself created, is just obnoxious. Have you read Sartre's play The Flies?