A film that inspires either loving or loathing, but rarely anything in between, Mother! opened five years ago this September. I saw it in the theater by myself, but with a decent number of other moviegoers. As the madness intensified over the film’s running time, I slid lower down in my seat, as if trying to hide from the all-out assault Darren Aronofsky was launching at us. Did this man hate us?? Nah, he just made a movie unlike any other and if there’s any karmic justice, one day it will be seen in a better light than it was in 2017. It was quite an experience that day in the theater, one I’ll never forget.
Trying to describe to someone what Mother! is about seems unnecessary because it’s about whatever you think it’s about. Nightmarish Biblical allegory? Absolutely! Nerve-jangling home invasion horror? Why not! Scarily accurate representation of what it’s like dealing with narcissists? Hell, yes! A cautionary tale about the perils of owning a fixer-upper house? Sure, I’ll buy that for a dollar! The best way to describe Mother! to someone goes something like this: it’s that movie where Michelle Pfeiffer toys with Jennifer Lawrence like a cat plays with a mouse before killing it. There’s so much more to the movie, but that aspect alone elevates it to must-see viewing.
I’ve written before about how Michelle deserved an Academy Award nomination for her scorched earth performance as “Woman” and I’m sticking to my story. She is the chaos agent who sets the movie’s mayhem into motion when she arrives at Jennifer’s Lawrence’s door. Michelle is deliciously mischievous and malevolent, sexy and dangerous, and at times downright scary, especially when she smiles disturbingly, or fixes a truly terrifying glare of death on Lawrence. The common theme here is simple: Michelle Pfeiffer terrifies the living hell out of Jennifer Lawrence in this movie. She scares the bejesus out of us as well, but she’s so damn alluring in the role that we’re helpless under her spell.
Ultimately, that’s the lasting impact of Mother!: like Michelle’s character, the film is both alluring and terrifying, and we are both drawn to and repulsed by it. The popular internet expression “I feel attacked” applies to the viewing experience with Mother!, a film that, once it really ramps up, feels like an extended panic attack writ large on screen.
One of the most memorably anxiety-provoking scenes in a movie that’s one long anxiety-provoking scene has to be during the total bedlam of the party scene where Lawrence’s quiet home is invaded by followers and fans of her husband, Javier Bardem as a writer who just might be God. At a few points during the mayhem, with partygoers strewn all about every nook and cranny of the house, Lawrence keeps screaming at the oblivious guests to stop sitting on the kitchen sink because “it’s not braced yet!” Soon enough, the sink collapses under their weight, water spraying everywhere. Chaos ensues. And that, right there, is why “The sink’s not braced” is the perfect encapsulation of Mother! to me. No matter what reading of the film you subscribe to, one aspect is always apparent: Mother! exposes the utter futility of our lifelong attempts to bring order to the chaos that is life. The ultimate disruptive force, the number one chaos agent, is either God or death itself, depending on what you believe, and humanity fights valiantly but always—always—unsuccessfully to stave off our end, at every turn. Mother! is a shrieking reminder then, a piercing cry from the dark abyss, that we are small and insignificant specs in the massive, sprawling, chaos of the cosmos.
Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead.” Mother! offers as potent a cinematic expression of that sentiment as we’re ever likely to see.