M. Keith Booker
University of Arkansas
Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is one of the most complex, enigmatic, and controversial films of the twenty-first century thus far. On the one hand, it is one of the most openly allegorical Hollywood A-list films ever made. On the other hand, this allegory is so overt that it is difficult to take seriously—not to mention the fact that identifying the allegorical referents in the film, unless supplemented by something else, does very little to make sense of the film’s chaotic plot. For example, this plot so extreme that it clearly extends into the realm of horror, perhaps even more clearly than had Aronofsky’s earlier films Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010). Mother! can clearly be read in a variety of different ways, many of which are seemingly very different from others. Thus, however foregrounded the Biblical allegory of the film might be, it is also the case that Mother! can easily be read as a fairly straightforward satire about the difficulties of modern suburban life, especially for suburban wives, with all the difficulties presented by motherhood, needy husbands, bad houseguests, out-of-control parties, and home improvement gone awry lined up one after another. Luckily, it is possible to see the allegorical reading and the satirical reading as working in tandem, rather than as competing for interpretive space. In particular, virtually all of the difficulties encountered by Jennifer Lawrence’s mother character are a direct result of the strongly patriarchal character of her marriage and her household, completely dominated as they are by the figure of Javier Bardem’s “Him,” whose obvious allegorical linkage to the God of the Bible serves to make clear the patriarchal structure of the Judaeo-Christian tradition itself, while also demonstrating the crucial role played by the Bible and the religions it supports in the evolution of the patriarchal social structure that is the target of the film’s satire. Thus, the multiple meanings of Mother! ultimately reinforce one another to produce an overall effect that is not nearly as chaotic as it first appears.
Mother! as Allegory
The allegorical reading of Mother! is probably the most obvious one, because the filmgoes out of its way to signal its allegorical intentions. For one thing, the characters are labeled not by names but by their functions in the story. In addition to “mother,” these labels include such things as “man,” “woman,” “oldest son,” “younger brother,” “herald,” “cupbearer,” “zealot,” and so on. All of these labels begin with lower case letters, except for “Him,” who, as the God character, of course has his label capitalized. Him is also linked to God in a number of other ways in the film. For example, he is a well-known author, frequently referred to in the film as a “creator.” And, at one point near the end, he even identifies himself by stating “I am I” echoing the famous “I am that I am” used by the burning bush (an incarnation of God) to explain its identity to Moses.
The logic of the film and its plot dictates that mother is, allegorically, the Virgin Mary. She loves (and practically worships) her famous husband, though we do learn that they haven’t been having sex. Then they have one vaguely defined encounter that leaves her pregnant, leading to the birth of a baby boy. Mother is very devoted to her infant son, but Him insists on turning the boy over to a crowd of his followers who have invaded the house, leading (as with the son of the Biblical God) to the boy’s death. Then, in an obscene parody of the Christian rite of the Eucharist, Him’s fans carve up and eat the body of Him’s son. Mother herself, meanwhile, helps to signal the film’s allegorical intentions by dropping in references to her attempts to make the house a “paradise” or to the fact that their destructive guests have caused an “apocalypse” in the house.
Those guests begin with a middle-aged couple, “man” and “woman,” who are eventually joined by their two sons (“oldest son” and “younger brother”). That this man and woman (the first people to arrive in God’s domain) are allegorical representations of the Biblical Adam and Eve is made quite clear in the film. For one thing, with the woman being the instigator, they are unable to resist invading Him’s private study to check out a prized crystal that they have been ordered not to touch. Of course, they drop and break this forbidden fruit, leading to their permanent expulsion from the study, which thus plays the role of the Garden of Eden. Mother even tries to throw them out of the house altogether but has no luck. Soon afterward, the two sons of the man and woman arrive. Predictably, these two sons (played by real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), quickly enact the well-known story of Cain and Abel by getting into a squabble that leads to “oldest son” mortally wounding “younger brother.”
All of these allegorical connections are quite clear but making these connections does not immediately do very much to clarify the “meaning” of the film, partly because there are alternative connections that can be made as well. For example, mother can also be viewed as representing “Mother Earth,” and the travails she suffers through can be seen as suggestions of the damage humans have done to earth’s natural environment, leading to our current predicament of impending catastrophic climate change. Aronofsky is, in fact, known, to have a strong interest in environmentalist issues and both he and Lawrence have suggested in interviews that Mother! is best read as an allegory about climate change. The problem with that reading is that it does not match up especially well with other aspects of the film (such as the notorious killed and eaten baby). In any case, there must surely be better ways of constructing a cautionary tale about global warming than by allegorizing it via a story of a struggling artist and a harried housewife, with really terrible houseguests and a home improvement nightmare. On the other hand, viewing this environmentalist allegory in conjunction with other aspects of the film makes it more effective. For example, viewing mother as Mother Earth and all the rude and thoughtless intruders who invade her territory as the human race does deliver a pretty strong message about just how cruelly humans have treated the planet—with an additional boost from the Biblical allegory, suggesting that God’s decision to create the human race and then give humans free will might have been a huge mistake. In addition, the two kinds of allegory actually work together to suggest that climate change threatens to be a disaster of apocalyptic, Biblical proportions. In addition, many would argue that much of the destruction done by humans to the natural environment can be linked to the impact of the Biblical creation story, which many have interpreted to suggest that the natural world was made for the exploitation of humans, who are ordered (in the King James version of Genesis 1:28) to “subdue” the natural world and to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Mother! as a Horror Film
One reason it is so tempting to read Mother! allegoricallyis that the events and situations in the film are so extreme that a straight realist interpretation seems virtually impossible. These events and situations are so extreme, though, that Mother! might be more usefully read as a horror film. After all, the genre of horror revels in extremity—and also does not demand that everything in a film has to make perfect sense in a realistic fashion. And it is certainly the case that much of what happens in Mother!, especially to mother herself, is genuinely horrifying.
Mother! begins with an enigmatic prologue in which a woman (the previous mother, we will eventually be able to surmise) is shown standing amid apocalyptic flames, while Him is shown placing a large crystal on a stand. Magical energies seem to emanate from the crystal, seemingly restoring the house around Him from a ruined state. Then the film proper begins as mother awakes to find Him absent from their bed; she begins to search for him and eventually wanders out onto the front porch and surveys their Edenic domain. She turns and we are treated to a minor Lewton bus–type jump scare as Him comes up from behind and startles her. Thus, four minutes into the film, we have already been signaled to be on the lookout for horror film conceits. Two minutes later, mother is shown plastering a wall as part of their home restoration project. She stops and places her hands on the wall and seemingly has a vision of a heart (or something) beating inside the wall. Again, the signal seems clear: the old, dark house in which the action is taking place would appear to be haunted, perhaps after the fashion of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1843 horror story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The house’s dark, creepy basement combines with things that go bump inside the walls, bleeding floorboards, and a furnace that turns on of its own accord (possibly burning with the fires of hell) to provide what seems to be classic horror film material, as does the mysterious hidden tunnel that mother eventually discovers leading away from the basement, giving us another jump scare as a “monster” (it turns out to be a mere frog, perhaps emblematic of a Biblical plague, but basically just another Lewton bus) leaps out at her from the tunnel.
Still within the film’s first few minutes, the man (played by Ed Harris) arrives at their front door, the first of many visitors in the film who will wreck the house and terrorize mother. For his part, Him (seemingly desperate for attention and adulation) welcomes the intrusions, hoping the arrival of something thin will help him break through the writer’s block that has been plaguing him. However, this is a film in which, as the title indicates, mother is very much the point-of-view character, and almost all viewers are likely to see the various visitors as so unpleasant and destructive that the film becomes a sort of home-invasion horror narrative. Indeed, everything in the film’s first few minutes already suggests that mother’s concerns when Him invites this “stranger” to sleep in their house are probably justified, and it all goes downhill from there.
The rest of the film is filled not only with an accelerating torrent of home invaders but also with moments and images that seem derived from the iconography of horror film. For one thing, the soundtrack is liberally sprinkled with a variety of ominous-sounding creaks, buzzes, and high-pitched whining and ringing noises that continually build tension. For another, there is a nonstop barrage of hints that something bad is about to happen. It becomes clear early on, for example, that mother is suffering from some sort of malady, though we never learn the nature of her illness or of the mysterious tincture that she takes to soothe her symptoms. The man is also suffering from a seemingly serious illness, plagued by frequent coughing and vomiting. Anyone watching the film in 2020 or later might parse these symptoms as Covid-like, but even back in 2017 it would have been natural to wonder if the man might be infectious. In any case, his vomiting apparently clogs a toilet, causing mother to have to take a plunger to it, only to pull up from the drain some sort of organic mass (perhaps an organ, perhaps a creature) that definitely belongs in a horror film. The thing lets out a shriek (causing another jump scare), then finally goes down the drain, apparently for good.
Once the woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, she immediately starts making out with her husband on the front porch as Him and mother look on. One might, of course, relate this behavior to the original shamelessness of Adam and Eve. Or not. In any case, it’s pretty clear that the man and woman are no respecters of propriety, though from this point their behavior is more annoying than horrifying—until their sons arrive, and murder immediately ensues, taking the film back into the realm of horror. Many more horrible things are to come, of course, with the cannibalized baby topping them all.
In addition to the general horror film vibe of Mother!, there are also many moments in the film that will remind viewers of things they have seen in specific earlier horror films—though these connections are typically nebulous enough that different viewers might be reminded of different horror film predecessors. One connection that seems almost unmistakable is to The Shining, with the house playing the role of the haunted hotel, Him playing the role of the embattled writer who can’t seem to write (and ultimately becomes a threat to his wife and son), and mother playing the suffering, threatened wife who bears the brunt of much of the film’s horror. One could even see the various guests in Mother! as playing the role of the crowd of ghosts that haunt the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
Mother! as Satire
If allegory and horror are both modes well suited to the extremity of Mother!, it is also the case that satire operates precisely through exaggeration, so it is quite possible to read the film as a satire, without reference to anything cosmic or supernatural. For example, the large, unusual house in which Him and mother live is such a strange abode that it clearly cries out for some sort of interpretation as something more than a mere house—such as reading it as an allegorical representation of an earth mistreated by humans to the point of destruction. But it can also be read simply as a house, but one whose various problems are simply exaggerations of the problems anyone who attempts to renovate a big, old, damaged house might encounter. In many ways it is a sort of dream home—but one that needs so much renovation and poses so many difficulties that it is constantly on the verge of becoming a nightmare.
If one looks at the film this way, then it essentially becomes a satire about the American dream and about how easily that dream can go wrong. Indeed, some of the difficulties that arise in the film are not extreme at all in comparison with the problems that anyone attempting such an ambitious renovation project would be likely to encounter. For example, the newly installed kitchen sink that hasn’t been properly braced (and is eventually demolished by thoughtless guests who insist on putting their weight on it, after a series of close calls) seems pretty believable to anyone who has ever remodeled a kitchen. In this case, the constantly threatened sink becomes almost a running gag in the film, and one is tempted to suggest that Aronofsky throws everything at mother in this film, including the kitchen sink. When that sink finally does collapse, it rips the pipes out of the wall above it, flooding the kitchen in a mishap that is again perfectly believable—though of course it could also be interpreted to represent the extreme flood brought down upon people in the Bible because of their bad behavior. And even the more unlikely characteristics of the house (such as the heart that mother apparently detects beating in the walls or the floorboards that begin rotting and oozing blood) need not be interpreted as being anything more than exaggerated satirical illustrations of all the things that can go wrong in remodeling a house.
We’ve seen this conceit before in film, as in Richard Benjamin’s The Money Pit (1986), in which Tom Hanks and Shelley Long play a young couple comically engaged in the remodeling project from hell. Granted, Mother! does not, at first glance, appear to be a comedy, though it is tempting to laugh at some of its more extreme developments. Indeed, A. O. Scott’s review of the film in The New York Times insists that the film should be regarded as a comedy, claiming that the film “made me laugh harder and more frequently than just about any other movie I’ve seen this year. I don’t say this derisively. Mr. Aronofsky’s visual wit and dexterous, disciplined camera movements create frissons of comic terror. His gift for escalation—evident in the marvelous crescendo of frenzied action that occupies most of the movie’s second half—may be unmatched in his generation of filmmakers.”
If the basic scenario of Mother! can be seen to involve a satirical home renovation project, mother’s travails in the film can easily be read as a satirical representation of the troubles typically experienced by wives who find themselves in marriages with self-centered husbands who clearly hold the power in the relationship, even while desperately needing constant reassurance and support, yet remaining seemingly clueless to the disparity between what they are giving and what they are demanding in the relationship. Indeed, Him (giddily delighted that the man is a fan of his) seems completely oblivious to mother’s mounting concerns as the man and the woman quickly turn out to be the houseguests from hell, constantly asking inappropriate questions, smoking in the house, nosily poking into everything, spilling things, and generally making nuisances of themselves, leading eventually to the breaking of the crystal.
Him is so completely self-centered that he leaves mother with the responsibility of taking care of the home renovation herself and of performing all of the other tasks that need to be done to keep the house running (such as unclogging that pesky toilet), while he devotes himself to writing (or, through much of the film, not writing). After all, his work is too important to devote his energies to such mundane tasks as remodeling or housework. He clearly believes (or wants to believe)that the world revolves around him, though he also seems deeply insecure and needs constant reassurances from others that he is as important as he would like to think. For her part, mother attempts to provide this reassurance, but he takes her so thoroughly for granted that her support means almost nothing to him. He thus must have supplemental assurance from others.
In the final segment of the film, those others arrive in full force, wreaking havoc on the house and on mother’s frayed nerves. The mob of Him’s admirers that populates this part of the film is so atrocious in behavior that they again bring the film back into the horror genre. Multiple critics have pointed out the relevance to Mother! of the famous declaration, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit, 1944) that “hell is other people,” and they are certainly correct to do so. As Guy Lodge puts it at the beginning of an excellent early review, “there are angrily haunted walls, live organs in the toilet bowl, and floor cracks that turn into squidgy open wounds in Mother!, with a blazing inferno consuming the screen in the very first shot. But those might just be bloody, shuddery distractions: with apologies to Sartre, in Darren Aronofsky’s exhilarating, shape-shifting horror-not-horror movie, the real hell is other people.”
Perhaps the closest horror film referent of this aspect of Mother!, however, is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which an artist husband sacrifices his younger and more innocent wife in the interest of furthering his career as an artist (in this case, an actor). In particular, Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) apparently arranges for his wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) to be raped and impregnated by Satan, subsequently bearing Satan’s son. Through most of the film, though, Satan is very much in the background, and most of the terror and anguish felt by Rosemary comes from being surrounded by strangers in her apartment building, strangers whom her husband happily welcomes into their lives, despite her objections.
That Aronofsky had Rosemary’s Baby in mind as one of the central inspirations for Mother! can be seen from the fact that a promotional poster for Mother! was explicitly modeled on a poster that had been used to promote Rosemary’s Baby half a century earlier (see below). Indeed, the fact that Mother! borrows so openly from classic horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining is one of the clearest signals that this film needs to be read within the context of horror. Of course, the connection to Rosemary’s Baby, in particular, raises the question of whether Him should be allegorically linked to Satan, rather than God, though it also raises the question of whether these two figures are really polar opposites or whether they are just competing parallel versions of the domineering patriarch.
Mother! as a Takedown of Patriarchy
Many aspects of Him’s personality obviously support the notion that he is an allegorical figure of the Judaeo-Christian God, the all-powerful creator Him who nevertheless might be seen as oddly insecure and almost desperate for the reverence of others. But this God is the prototypical patriarch and one need not look to Biblical precedents to see that the satire of Mother! is aimed not just at the cracks and fissures in the American suburban dream but, more specifically, at the patriarchal tendencies that can make that dream a nightmare for women. Again, this reading is consistent with the notion that the film is a Biblical allegory, given that the Bible is a key source of attitudes that have led to inequality in marriage. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, for example, we read (in the King James version) that “the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man.” In short, though interpretations vary, one view of Christian marriage is that the husband is to the wife as God is to the husband.
Still, in many ways, the clearest literary predecessor to Him might not be the Biblical God so much as more down-to-earth figures such as Mr. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). Like Him, Mr. Ramsay is a writer of minor fame whose most productive days might be behind him, though Him does seem to recover his creative powers in the course of the film. More importantly, both Mr. Ramsay and Him are overbearing and self-absorbed figures who think the world revolves around them and seem oblivious to the feelings of others. Yet they are both deeply insecure and require constant attention and constant reassurance that they really are as accomplished and important as they like to think they are. Woolf’s novel, of course, is a very clear (and very effective) a satirical takedown of the patriarchal system inherited from the Victorians and that was still very much in full force during the times both of the setting and the writing of To the Lighthouse. As a result, reading Mother! alongside Woolf’s novel helps to clarify the more muddled message of the film, which in turn serves as a reminder that the patriarchy is still alive and well a century after the action of Woolf’s novel.
Meanwhile, mother’s nurturing attitude toward her husband is to an extent similar to that of Mrs. Ramsay, though Lawrence’s character is a bit spunkier than her genteel predecessor. For example, after the pivotal sink collapse, she drives the invaders (guests at a sort of wake for younger brother that Him has agreed to host in their home) from the house and then turns on her husband in fury when he takes the side of the guests. She becomes furious at Him for seeming to care more about them and their feelings than about hers. But she goes on to note that it really isn’t about them but is about Him: “It’s always about you and your work!” Then she points out that she has rebuilt the entire house for Him, freeing him up to write, but that he hasn’t actually written anything. Not accustomed to having her stand up to him in this way, Him angrily responds by mocking her attempts to be supportive and pointing out that life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. “Mine certainly didn’t,” she coldly responds, then taunts him by suggesting that he is unable to perform sexually.
One could certainly never imagine Mrs. Ramsay saying such things to Mr. Ramsay, but then this film was made nearly a century after To the Lighthouse was written. This exchange, though, goads Him into demonstrating his patriarchal power by initiating a rough sexual encounter that at first looks very much like a rape, though mother’s resistance soon turns to enthusiastic participation. They begin working their way up the stairs toward the bedroom, but then the film cuts to the next morning, as mother wakes up in bed beside Him and somehow immediately senses that she is pregnant, which presumably means that they did indeed have sex the night before.
Feeling that making mother pregnant has restored his masculine power, Him instantly experiences a burst of creative energy, then frantically searches for a pen (his pen is surely a form of penis surrogate) with which he begins furiously to write his next book. The film then skips quickly through the next months, as Him finishes his book, and mother reaches the late stages of pregnancy. Mother is disappointed to find that Him sent the manuscript of the book to his publisher before showing it to her, but she is nevertheless thrilled when the book appears and becomes an immediate sensation. To celebrate, she prepares an elaborate dinner for herself and her husband, only to have it interrupted when legions of his fans begin to arrive, leading to roughly forty minutes of hell for mother, as Him’s admirers wreck and loot the house and kill and eat her baby, which arrives in the midst of it all and which mother has to deliver in a house full of unruly strangers—spiraling into an invading force of riot police, a revolution, and an all-out commando assault, all of which arrive just as she is going into labor.
Time and again, throughout the film, mother does her best to perform her womanly domestic duties, cleaning and cooking and patching and doing her best to deal with the various crises that are presented to her, largely thanks to the self-centered actions of her husband. Yet she gets little appreciation for all of her labors, including the labor of giving birth. Indeed, once the baby arrives, she tries her best to live up to her motherly label, only to find that Him seems to regard the infant as just another opportunity to get increased attention from his admirers, quickly leading to the baby’s death.
Him reaches the peak of his egotistical glory during the uproarious final segment of the film. He is so thrilled to be receiving all this adulation that he completely ignores the suffering of mother and virtually ignores the grotesque treatment of the baby. If Him is God, of course, then his son was meant to be sacrificed all along, so it’s all part of the plan. Again, though, this allegorical reading is certainly not the only way to read Him’s behavior. One could also see much of the film as a commentary on the egotistical self-absorption of artists in general—a reading that nicely meshes with the allegorical one by suggesting that artists like to think of themselves as godlike creators.
In any case, the film ends when a harried mother ignites the house and triggers an apocalyptic fire that destroys the house and everything around it, apparently annihilating all of the invaders. Mother briefly survives, and a seemingly unharmed Him carries her charred body through the ruins. In one final patriarchal flourish, he plucks out her heart and uses it to fashion a crystal like the one broken by the man and woman, then apparently uses the energy that he channels through the new crystal to begin a process of regeneration that starts the film’s whole narrative over again. In short, Him has literally ripped the very life out of mother in order to fuel his creative process. A new mother awakes alone in bed and starts to search for Him, and we are left to wonder whether her fate will be the same as that of the last mother (who was apparently already following in the footsteps of a previous mother).
Despite the fact that the action of the film is so chaotic, while the film itself is a hodgepodge of disparate elements and genres, Mother! is actually less of a mess than it might first appear—though it remains a fragmented and plural postmodern artifact that resists any single final interpretation. The literal action of the film, however, bizarre and extreme, is fairly easy to follow, even if one must surely seek nonrealist interpretations in order to make sense of it all. The most straightforward of those interpretations is that Mother! is a domestic satire about some of the difficulties of modern American life, with an emphasis on the perils of home improvement projects. But this satire morphs smoothly into a satire about marriage—and in particular about the special pressures placed on women by marriage within a patriarchal framework, which creates extreme inequalities in relationships. This aspect of the film’s satire then meshes well with the element of Biblical allegory that is so prominent in the film, identifying the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition as a key source of the patriarchal structures critiqued by the film. This allegory also works well with the film’s satirical treatment of the self-absorbed egocentricity of some artists, who might have derived their elevated views of the importance of themselves and their work from a long Western tradition of seeing parallels between God’s creation of the universe and the artist’s creation of art. Similarly, the environmentalist allegory that resides within Mother! combines with the Biblical allegory not only to suggest that climate change could be apocalyptic but also to suggest that the attitude that has led to the ravaging of the environment can be related, at least in part, to the notion that the Bible gives humans dominion over nature. Finally, all of these various readings are consistent with the notion that Mother! is a horror film, given that all of the events of the film fit well within that genre, which helps to provide a framework for understanding the extremity of the events and images in this film and to pull together all the different interpretive threads that the film makes available.
Lodge, Guy. “Venice Review: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! Is a Spectacular Attack of a Movie. Vanity Fair, 5 September 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/09/mother-movie-review-jennifer-lawrence-darren-aronofsky. Accessed 4 December 2021.
Scott, A. O. Review: “‘Mother!’ Is a Divine Comedy, Dressed as a Psychological Thriller.” The New York Times, 13 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/movies/mother-review-jennifer-lawrence-darren-aronofsky.html. Accessed 4 December 2021.
Thompson, Anne. “‘Mother!’: Darren Aronofsky Answers All Your Burning Questions About the Film’s Shocking Twists and Meanings.” IndieWire, 18 September 2017, https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/mother-darren-aronofsky-explains-mythology-allegory-bible-jennifer-lawrence-1201877848/. Accessed 2 December 2021.
 The term “Lewton bus” is often used to describe jump scares that turn out to be caused from something harmless. The terms refers to the 1942 film Cat People, from producer Val Lewton, in which a jump scare is caused by what at first appears to be a dangerous animal attack but turns out simply to be a harmless arriving bus.
 Aronofsky has said that the thing in the toilet is the man’s (Adam’s) rib, removed to make the woman (Eve). The thing looks nothing like a rib, however, and that explanation makes so little sense that one suspects Aronofsky of being less than serious with this explanation. Aronofsky’s explanations of this film have been inconsistent at best. See Thompson for one of his most thorough (and seemingly sincere) attempts to explain the film.
 Many commentators have noted this connection. One of the more clever responses to this connection was one YouTuber’s re-edit of the original trailer for Rosemary’s Baby to resemble the style of Aronofsky’s trailer for Mother! That trailer can be seen here: https://youtu.be/CXetZp3JVdw. You can see the official trailer for Mother! here: https://youtu.be/XpICoc65uh0.