Biblical, metaphorical, and graphic, mother! is an anxious mess. Best described as a frothing concoction of allegory (war, famine, climate change) and an excruciating fever dream that is hard to endure. Post first viewing, the film sat like a dark pit in my abdomen, pressing against my organs. This pit formed as I watched the final act of the film — a gruesome act to the point that it is indigestible. To be clear, I love mother!. It’s an incredible film — that is also absolutely agonizing — but somehow satisfied in its ability to make its audience physically ill with panic. It is also appropriate to mention that mother! is only classified as a horror film to prepare audiences for its graphically depicted atrocities.
mother! introduces us to Jennifer Lawrence as Mother, the doe-eyed, sweet and startled wife of Javier Bardem’s Him/Poet. All of the characters in mother! are given loosely defined labels rather than names because they must concretely represent the whole of the human race, eg. Michelle Pfeiffer is Woman, and Kristen Wiig is Herald. Their characters are less important than their function in the narrative as architects of violence, chaos, and panic. Mother and Poet live in an isolated lull at the beginning; their lives are plain. Mother is creation and care; She handles every task, chore, and project, while her husband stays locked away in his office writing. It is quite apparent that she is meant to represent the warm, life-giving nature of our planet.
The second most important character is their home, a wooden mansion in the center of a meadow. Mother in enmeshed within the house — her own creaking, oozing, shuddering, homely sanctuary. Earth embodied. The pastoral home swiftly becomes bloodied and bruised, tainted by the conflicts of the guests; their corruption and hostility leave imprints on every surface — bloodstains on the hardwood, a shattered crystal, fractured glass. By the third act, it becomes something resembling a war zone, thoroughly stocked with tear gas, rifles, and pools of blood. Mother struggles to take a single step without being assaulted by one of the guests, her husband’s self-defined worshippers. Mother is a victim of selfish impulse and human evil, her home has become a place of cruelty and death, both of them are our Earth.
For much of human history, Earth has been associated with feminine features in ways both positive and negative, metaphorical and literal. One might think of the Greek goddess Gaea, the Athabaskan goddess Asintmah, the Latvian goddess Zeme, or Papatuanuku, the Maori earth mother. In a Western context, much of this metaphor is associated with reproduction and who is responsible for bringing forth life; Women are often viewed first as reproductive organs, and second as fully individualized human beings. Mother Earth becomes a term once women’s biological reproductive abilities are conflated to the life-bearing properties of our Earth and our land. The metaphor is about turning both Earth and women into objective bodies composed only of matter, inert. It is a means of stripping both of agency and power.
Simone de Beauvoir dissects this allegory rather neatly in The Second Sex, where she deconstructs the theory that there is biological evidence proving women as more similar to other females of the animal kingdom than men. She also tears apart the construct of women as reproductive bodies, examining the nitty-gritty biological details of reproductive systems (human and otherwise) to further understand why women are categorized in such an objective way. Her primary conclusion is that men need to find justification for the “disquieting hostility” they feel towards women, and so confine women to their sex and project all females onto women.
Using women’s bodies simply as a function of metaphor is something with a deep misogynistic history. While it can function in a feminist way, the metaphor of the earth as a mother has historically allowed the patriarchy to exploit, colonize, objectify and defile without consequence. During the 16th century, this metaphor gave reason to European colonizers for their raping of indigenous women as a method of control and subjugation, which occurred simultaneously to their bleeding of land and resources. Imperialist men conquered lands and people through joint, intentional destruction of nature and abuse of indigenous women. These men shared an obsession with wealth and objectification of both women and land, and left behind a trail of battered bodies, plundered soil, and carnage.
This metaphor in its patriarchal definition helps to contextualize the world for men, abandoning women, and Earth as inconsequential, dead things. Both are objects of desire, things to acquire or win. It is interesting that Aronofsky would use this in mother! in an attempt to condemn humanity for its disrespect, when the metaphor itself is a contributor to our reeking pile of crimes against nature. It is actually the very essence of positioning the Earth as a material and maternal object that results in bloodshed and abuse.
Aronofsky slaps the audience in the face with this metaphor in an indictment of humanity’s lack of reverence for our Earth, however, he also uses this metaphor as a way to exhibit gendered violence to an extreme, sickening degree — which contradicts the entire point. Though the goal may be to condemn humanity for our irredeemable actions, such a gratuitous display of violence is practically traumatizing. Mother is grabbed, spoken down to, and objectified. Her space and safety are overrun by careless, thieving, uncontrollable guests. She is assaulted by her husband’s disciples, who shoves her into walls, clutching her by the throat, and screech into her face. Her house is completely torn apart from the inside out, sinks are severed from their pipes, wooden beams are ripped from the walls and set ablaze. It is madness in every regard, but nothing compared to the most final moments of violence.
Her baby is murdered and mutilated in front of her, then eaten by the worshipers. She screams and rages and fights, but she is only one in a sea of crazed, delusional worshippers who hit her to the ground. Slurs (cunt, nasty whore, slut) are spat in Mother’s face as her body is furiously beaten by a crowd that gets madder as every second passes. They tear her clothes from her flesh, kick her in the face and neck, and choke her. She is bloody, mangled, bruised, and sobs heave through her chest as she cries for her baby. There’s no way someone who possesses any normal amount of empathy could have created something this sickening and cruel.
In the third act of mother! there seems to be no actual regard for how gendered violence functions in the real world. I get that the audience is supposed to understand that we are watching a film, and as such take it as fiction. However, media doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a slew of female critics saying that the end of this film was physically sickening isn’t about political correctness (or what some male critics called a lack of comprehension). mother!’s misanthropic take is wholly valid, but within its misogynistic violence, it becomes nothing more than a vehicle of metaphor. The intent is merely surface level, a means of shocking the viewer into self-reflection and empathy for our Earth. I would perhaps feel empathy if I was not overwhelmed with disgust and fury for the lack of compassion mother! has for women.
“I have nothing left to give.”
In the end, Mother takes her rightful revenge. Angry, bitter, she screams through the veins of the house, cracking it wide open, and she runs and runs, down to the basement to set it all ablaze. Only once the fire has erupted from every corner of her home is she finally at peace — her eyes flutter shut as fiery wreckage disintegrates around her. This is our predicted end, burning in the rage of our planet.
To help us continue to create content, please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi.
Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.