Mary Kay McBrayer
GETTING STARTED WITH THE APOCALYPSE IN MOTHER!
I don't often get into my car after a movie and start crying and NOT know why. Because of life, sure, all the time, NBD, but not because of a movie. Not often.
Here are five reasons why I reacted so strongly to Darren Aronofsky's FUBAR new film, mother!
I am not a mother. For the first, like, twenty-seven years of my life, the thought of being a mother in itself horrified me for a number of reasons. Number one, I was unmarried, and would not only feel real sinful, being raised part-Catholic-part-Presbyterian, but I would also have inevitably raised the multiethnic genius baby alone on the payment of a person who had two part-time jobs and had likely moved back in with her own mother at that point. (That was four points of horror, just straight up. In case you missed them: Hester Prynne, devil spawn, broke af, Miss Havisham.)
Something snapped in my worldview on my 28th birthday, which I spent as single as the two before. My brain squeezed the universe into a ball and rolled it toward the overwhelming question: what if I NEVER have children? That's not so unlikely at my age, my economic status (tenuous!), and my overeducation. I blame this insecurity on all my friends who are suddenly having kids on purpose and (re)marrying the love(s) of their life at an outdoor wedding in the middle of August while I'm over here mass-texting flask-drunk with one eye closed from the back pew, "Y'all tryin'a party tonight?" (I live in the South, okay? It's the one place in the U.S. where people still get married a lot, and families expect you to get married. One time I overturned a table at one such wedding when a great aunt asked me why I wasn't married. "You ain't getting younger," she said. Just kidding. I would never make a scene at a wedding. Just kidding. I would never be sober enough at a wedding to remember making a scene.)
This is probably the fear that most normal women actually have: what if something happens to the baby? And worse, what if it's my fault? As a mom, you have, like, ONE JOB: take care of that baby. Your job is to fall on that grenade. That is the prerequisite. Motherhood is essentially a study in self-sacrifice. (Don't pretend you've never heard a mom joke, "I used to look like that in short shorts." "You see these lines on my legs? You did that." "About this time twenty-nine years ago, I was wanting to murder your daddy."--that's what my mom always tells me at ten PM on my birthday. But in all seriousness, listen to some of the literal horror stories of mothers, and then come back here and tell me to my face that it doesn't scare the shit out of you. And that's just what happens to THEM.
I've seen my share of evil kids. They're in my trifecta of evil shit I can't handle. Even though in my experience, the kids who had demons generally inherited them from their parents, this movie had a lot of Rosemary's Baby vibes happening, and I just can't deal.
You know how you superimpose your face over the face of any protagonist who you can identify with even a little? Well. Jennifer Lawrence's character is married to Javier Bardem in this movie. I identify with that because I am deeply in love with him. Javier plays one hell of a bad guy, so there's that propensity of mine/hers to deal with. And I know my own shortcoming of distinguishing between tough guys with hearts of gold and sick fucks with good manners.
For all these reasons, I had a lot of apprehension at seeing this movie. So, obviously, I went to go see it. Twice.
**Here's where the spoilers start. I won't re-cap the whole plot. I will assume that you saw it. If you didn't, you should see it. Even if you hate it, it will make you think, and who wants to live in a thoughtless world?**
If you're reading the spoiler-part even though you haven't seen the movie, I'm still not going to truly spoil it for you. The end is so subject to interpretation that you can do basically whatever you want with it.
I've been trying since the day it released to get a thesis together that I wanted to argue. The best I can do is this: mother! deifies creation over destruction, but it keeps the gender binary. By that, I mean, the man wants to create, but he can't, so he uses the woman, and in that abuse, in his attempt to create, he destroys everything. Without her devotion and assistance, he can't start over. She keeps the cycle going by willingly continuing to love him, which is both her greatest strength and greatest weakness because while it is a selfless act, it enables this dude to fuck off and experiment endlessly.
Basically, she's not doing anything wrong. She is great. Her greatness goes unreciprocated. And that's a problem.
Took me two damn weeks. It's not perfect, but I did my best.
WOMAN AGAINST WOMAN
I think this woman-against-woman drama is where all destruction begins, not only in this movie, but in life. You can't do shit without somebody telling you a better, cheaper, more efficient, longer-lasting, prettier, newer way of doing it, if you're a woman. Literally everybody is a critic. And that's one of the main problems I had with OTHER criticisms of this movie: let me say it for the ladies in the back, and gentlemen, y'all should be listening no matter where you at. Just because a woman doesn't look empowered to you does not make her narrative antifeminist. My way of living as a woman won't be the same as yours, period. But let's look at it how this manifests in the movie so you can see what I'm talking about.
Oh, Michelle Pfeiffer, how I love to despise you. Hot older mom with a lot of sexy-time experience who flaunts it and basically says with every look, "You ain't shit."
Right away, her character, Woman, sticks her nose where it doesn't belong, saying bullshit like, "Why don't you want kids?" "No, it's obvious he still loves you." And the dialogue that made me scoff despite myself in the theater, BOTH TIMES: "I mean look at you. If he's not all over you then it's either his age, or...." When Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) presses her, Woman (Pfeiffer) says it's nothing. It's none of her business. Bitch! Why would you do that? Why would you make her doubt herself? To quote Tituss Andromedon endlessly, There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.
Let me skip ahead to after the FUCKING FRATRICIDE IN MOTHER'S NEW HOUSE. (I'm not even gonna comment about how Mother destroyed a crime scene by cleaning it up because that's big ass red herring, but you can TRUST that if somebody killed his brother in MY unborn kid's nursery that crime scene would be destroyed ONLY by the police.) So, after Him (Javier Bardem) leaves Mother to take care of this stranger's kid who got killed by the stranger's other kid, he ALSO invites them back to have the wake at the house that his wife just restored. She is, obviously, surprised, and so she is wearing pajamas when everyone arrives. Woman confronts her in a passive aggressive way first, thanking their generous host (singular!) for his hospitality. Then the tension builds when Woman, stunning in her mourning, says to Mother, "You give and you give and you give, and it's never enough."
Woman says, like you do when someone is complaining at you, "I understand--"
"Do you? No. You couldn't understand if you don't have a child." And then, in that scathing way that women do to each other, she says to the woman whose house she has trashed more than once in less than one screen-time hour, "Why don't you at least go put on something decent?" It's times like these when I recognize easily that I have no tact, because regardless of who said that shit to me, if it was in my own house, I would have clapped back.
If I was a little drunk, I might defer to the Man Who Owns Me, but then I would expect him to Handle It, and if he didn't, I would. I am not, however, a mother, and I'm not married. This attitude MAY have had a correlative relationship with those sicksad facts, but that just supports what I'm trying to say about this narrative even more: women can't do nothing right, or so y'all would have us/Mother/her/me believe.
Obviously, neither woman wants the other to be there from the very start. They both see the other as threats, which is what our culture has programmed us to do: Mother sees in Woman a hot sex life and two beautiful adult children... when she is childless and her marriage is sexless. Woman sees in Mother a hot young woman married to a hot older man. See? They could both be equally strong, but they fear each other instead. Mother just caves in to whatever her husband wants, occasionally, and meekly saying when the uninvited guests leave the room, "Why would you do that? Invite them without asking me?" and he shrugs it off, of course, not realizing the gravity of what he's just volun-told his wife to do.
WOMAN AGAINST MAN
This one seems more obvious to me, so I won't spend too much time on it. Plus this is the aspect that EVERYONE chooses to focus on when writing literarily about this film--yes bitches, this is high-brow literary criticism. Congratulations, you made it to the top.
But since I have a lifetime of experience dishing shit back to secret assholes with pretty faces... *cracks knuckles*
Let's revisit this lit dynamite from our demure, sweet, and supportive Mother: "Why would you do that? Invite them without asking me?" Here's why. He's an ingrate. As much as it pains me to say that about my one, true love, Javier Bardem, and any personages that he may represent, he sucks. He gives way too little, but you let that tide you over because you are a camel, you can survive on the very most tiny amount of praise because that's how low our "feminist" culture has set the bar for you.
They destroy the house. The wake turns into a house party. They break the sink, paint the walls, try to hook up in her room--which is pretty standard fare for a house party, I guess, but you go into hosting one KNOWING that will happen. So we have the home-invasion trope again, which is the other thing that everyone who has written about this movie mentions. You can read one of them because I'm not interested in reinventing the wheel.
So then, let me tell you what this motherfucker does. He makes fun of her positivity after she's finally coming clean with him, telling him how her life doesn't look the way that he pitched it to her, the way that she has actively facilitated it to be. This next part is when Mother finally gets her nerve up. She finally says what she's thinking, what this whole home-invasion trope has catalyzed: "You say you want kids but you can't even fuck me."
I'd like to say that's when I identified with Mother the most, when she stood up for herself right then. And it takes her FOREVER to stand up for herself. How many of us in that film got uncomfortable because we wanted her to SAY SOMETHING. Say it in front of them! When Man says they're in the way, say yes, you are! Get mad!
We've all been there, and I don't identify most with her standing up for herself.
Because next is the only sex scene in the movie, which starts out as a physical fight, kind of, but then they make out on the steps and then he carries her up to their room. It's a total STELLA situation, which I loved and identified way too much with, as well.
Just a BRIEF aside... Marlon Brando, tho.
And right after that scene, when Mother tells him she's pregnant, Him jumps out of bed and you get a nude shot of Javier Bardem from behind. So, if you were on the fence about seeing the movie, I mean, you at least will have that image to add to your spankbank. We cut to him finishing his masterpiece poem and then his fans start showing up and he starts to ignore his VERY pregnant wife and then there is a crazy nightmare sequence wherein everything that can horrify you physically happens, including fucking childbirth. Y'all can read about that fresh hell in another post, too. It's been done, so I'm skipping to the standoff.
It starts when Him says, "Let me hold him."
Every woman in that theater said under her breath, in unison with Mother, "No." I'm not exaggerating. It was a really great moment of solidarity.
He tries to haggle. "Give him to me." "No." "I'm his father." "I'm his mother." (Subtext: I am his goddamned motherfucking mother.) So he waits till she falls asleep, which she will do because of the tribulation he and his fans put her through. When she does, he lets the crowd hold the baby. They crowdsurf him away even though she's screaming to get him back, and they kill him, and then they eat him. Everyone who has written about this film has compared this to Christian rituals, so I won't insult you by expanding on that allegory. You can do it (Crucifixion, Last Supper, Communion). We highbrow. We taking that in stride.
Yes, it might be a Christian metaphor, but this is a woman who did not know she would one day sacrifice her son, and that it would be at the hands of the man (note, little "m" man, not Man, not God) who fathered him. The mortality of that situation makes it a lot less noble. A lot less altruistic. A lot less purposeful. A lot heavier. And then he asks her to forgive them, immediately, because it was an accident.
That's not Christlike, to me. You could of course tell me I'm equivocating in the face of theodicy, but that'd be too easy. No Occam's razor for me, thanks. What, you thought I was joking when I said we highbrow?
You know what else? I reject the idea that Mother is a metaphor for Mother Nature, too. "Mother Nature" is a metonymic concept for actual motherhood. That's why it's a thing. So go ahead and read about that somewhere else, too. Remember when Woman said earlier that she would understand if she had a child that "You give and you give and you give, and it's never enough?" Turns out she was right. See? They could have helped each other all along, just like I said. She has another apt reaction: she calls him a murderer and tells him it's time to get the fuck out of her house. Because it is her house. She rebuilt it with her love. Figuratively. And literally, it turns out.
WOMAN FOR MAN
This is another thing that everyone seems to have found bad: a man wrote and directed this movie, not a woman. But damn if he didn't nail the struggle, y'all. Thank you, Darren, for being an ally. Yeah it's over the top, but we expected that of you, and it's not an inaccurate--maybe slightly hyperbolic to ME SPECIFICALLY because I haven't sacrificed a child or loved anyone so hard he made me literally self-immolate, but I know women who have. And that doesn't make them any less feminist. I really can't say that enough. Being oppressed doesn't make a woman not a feminist. A story of an oppressed woman isn't antifeminist.
In fact, honestly, a man telling a story of an oppressed woman will probably make other men give who didn't already actually give a fuck, or at least consider watching it. So, again, thanks for that platform, and thanks for casting Jennifer Lawrence who NAILED that shit, amiright?
If we can step outside the movie for JUST A SECOND, check this out. She committed,y'all.
Okay, so, back to the story: viewers found out in the trailer that Mother rebuilt the house for Him all by herself. When she's tearing down Mother's self esteem, Woman even says it seems like a lot of trouble. Wouldn't it be easier to just start over?
That's why she's Woman, and why she's not Mother. Because Mother's rendition of that giving-of-self sentiment is much stronger: "I gave you everything," she screams, just before she blows the house and all her hard work to smithereens. She says, "I gave you everything. You gave it all away." That's the nail in her coffin. She has given him everything. I get why she'd give him everything. He's genius. He's creative. He's good to her. He's capable. He's older. He's respected. He's established. He loves her. She loves him. I love him. He doesn't need her. Not really. And Javier Bardem, for those of you who somehow missed it the myriad times I've let it drop in casual conversation, Javier Bardem IS my celebrity sex list. I can totally see myself telling him as he springs naked from the bed we share and starts to write at his desk, "I don't want to interrupt. I'll just get started on the apocalypse." Except for, of course, I'll be talking about an actual apocalypse, not just cleaning up the house from some guests he invited without my permission, because as I said in the cartoon above, I would not allow that to happen to me. I think. I don't know. Maybe I would. I mean, he is the love of my life.
See how quickly I caved? #Feminism, my ass.
What incredible love and resolve Mother has for Him, truly. But it's not enough. He keeps asking for more. "Find a way to forgive them," he says. And afterward she self-immolates, destroying herself and his work and his followers, but not Him, he says, "I need one more thing."
WOMAN AGAINST SELF
Him essentially asks for Mother's self-sacrifice. Or he drives her to it. When she can take no more of his pompous bullshit--and we all have our breaking point--especially with y'all writers, y'all CREATORS [eyeroll]. We might go down, but we taking every sangle one a y'all with us. Which is his whole plan. He needs the sacrifice in order to create. Him uses Mother: he knows he won't be affected, but he lets her blow herself up to try to kill him. He uses her. He loves her, and then he uses her as his muse and fodder and literally takes her crystalline heart out in order to rebuild from her prototype.
Devastation occurs. The house is leveled. Bringing us, of course, back to the beginning. The end of the film.
Here's a piece of dialogue that was really interesting to me--and I can't be sure that I quoted it in the exact verbatim, so if I'm incorrect, please let me know since I want to be perfect all the time in every aspect. As Him carries Mother's charred almost-corpse, she asks him,
"What are you?"
"I am I. And you? You are home."
"Where are you taking me?"
He sets her gently down on the desk in his office--which is apparently where the "beginning" happens, and he tells her he needs one more thing from her. She says, "I have nothing left to give," and then he asks for her love. In a horrifying twist, she says he can take it, and then he literally reaches into her chest and pulls out her charred heart, which he then breaks up to reveal the stone that was on display in his office originally, which he puts on the same display while he smiles.
I wasn't going to summarize, but DAMN IT WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THAT.
It's inconclusive, kind of, but it also comes at a time when we need closure--when all the horror has to have been for something. So here's my best try:
When Him says "I am I," he's referencing his identity as a creator--whether that's a blasphemous Judeo-Christian allegory is not irrelevant, but, again, not MY point--is nonsense because humans can't create from nothing. We can't. Not even Javier Bardem. But he believes it, and she believes in him by even asking the question, "What are you?" because the "what" means she no longer recognizes him as something fallible, a human. This is because he is the survivor of the blast.
When he says "You are home," he doesn't mean she's AT home, he means that she is his place. She is the setting that he needs in order to "create," which he is NOT doing, because he has to have materials to do it, and she is his material. She is his fodder, his muse. She's doing it because he told her to, but also because she wants to.
It's a cycle. He calls himself a creator, but he's not, because without her and her "love" he can't make anything. She tires of being his material and destroys the whole shebang. Pun intended. And what does he do? He finds another home, another woman to sacrifice herself for him. Just like that. She is totally replaceable, a renewable resource. Maybe that's why they call Nature a Mother.
And that's incredibly fucked up. Remember when he says about Man (Ed Harris), "It's nice to talk to somebody who truly appreciates the work." What the fuck, guy? She looks at Him in the best, most understated foreshadowing way and says while she cleans up the kitchen for his guests, "But I love your work."
WOMAN FOR SELF
This is the part that is missing. The part that would make this film not a horror film, the part that would empower the protagonist. I think this is the aspect that off-put so many critics--and I mean "critic" not in the sense of an actual film critic, but in the sense of "everybody's a critic." She gives all of her agency over to Him. But she CHOOSES to do that. Does he more or less bully her into doing it? Absolutely. But she does choose. She chooses very, exceptionally poorly, but it's still a choice.
And that's why it's scary. mother! is a cautionary tale against self-sacrifice, in favor of selfishness, or at least a healthy distrust of those who ask us for too much. We need that story, we need it for feminism because we do that. Women do that. We will totally let some big nobody tie us up and lie us across some train tracks if it's a cause we believe in him/her or their cause, if it's for someone we love or whose work we believe in more than our own, hoping through the blindfold as we hear the train get louder and feel the vibration on the tracks that they won't make us regret that decision.