mother! (2017), “This is America” and the Pitfalls of Full Allegory

It’s been exactly a year tomorrow since the release of mother!, and it’s been divisive to say the least. It’s a beautifully shot movie, but I would’ve appreciated if there was a plot operating on the surface, with the allegory as subtext. Still, it’s one I’ve thought about often since I first watched it at home several months ago.

The first half of the movie, before Jennifer Lawrence’s character, only credited as mother, gets pregnant, is relatively formless and mostly composed of loosely-connected vignettes. It is framed with magical realism logic, but there is at least the idea of a couple’s marriage being disrupted by visitors who won’t leave. But the second half jumps straight into dream logic. This becomes evident when mother reads Javier Bardem’s Him’s poem, then the phone rings and His agent had already read it. Around this time I thought, “What, he wrote it on paper, how could the agent have already read it?” Then it became clear time was speeding up and everything was full metaphor.

Many critics have already parsed the movie out pretty cleanly. It’s Biblical allegory, it’s art at the expense of everything, it’s an indictment of how humanity treats the Earth. I also feel like it’s a commentary on what it feels like to be a celebrity.

Not just that director Darren Aronofsky had a public breakup with ex-wife Rachel Weisz, who left him for Daniel Craig in 2010, but the feeling of having no privacy when you’re in the public eye. A lot of the imagery evokes the paparazzi, and a kind of microcosmic view of Hollywood events and the decadence of Los Angeles. That makes the casting of Lawrence all the more potent, considering she’s one of the few big movie stars and has been scrutinized since she was a teenager. The movie acknowledges this when Ed Harris’s character jokes about her being Bardem’s daughter.

So with negligible plot it’s more about evoking a feeling and an atmosphere. Comparing this to something like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is pretty apt, but at least Antichrist has a straightforward plot: A couple have a child that dies, they go to a cabin in the woods to mourn, then it turns into a slasher movie. It’s just the execution that’s so avant-garde.

Along with evoking a feeling, in terms of Biblical allegory by the last half hour we’re caught up to the world today: war, debauchery, avarice all bottled up under one roof. But the whole movie seemed to be trying to communicate a tone poem about a very specific moment in time. It would be too easy to say this is about the era of Trump, especially since it was written and filmed in 2016 before Trump won, but it definitely has thoughts about how men treat women that are especially topical in the wake of #metoo.

For instance, Him gaslights mother for most of the movie, talks down to her, and exploits her. When she’s used up he tosses her away and gets the new, younger model.

As an extension of the treatment of women, the yellow liquid is a big question mark. I’ve seen it theorized as a nerve tonic, but I’m reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. If you’re not familiar, it’s an 1892 short story about a woman who has just given birth and is suffering from “hysteria.” Her doctor puts her on bed rest in the guest bedroom that has, you guessed it, yellow wallpaper, and she slowly loses her mind. She starts imagining there’s a woman behind the wallpaper trying to claw her way out. It gets pretty freaky and Victorian after that, but point being she’s suffering from Postpartum Depression but no one understood that back then so they shut her away. Mother is similarly dismissed in this movie. I’m not sure what it means that she stops taking the tonic when she gets pregnant.

In another Biblical sense the movie is very much about how to maintain ethical standards of civility when the paradigm has shifted. In that way it reminds me of Funny Games, another horror movie that functions on a somewhat allegorical level, although there is a base narrative atop all the “where’s the fucking remote?!” headscratchers. As with Funny Games, there’s this very simple concept of hospitality: allowing someone into your home and the etiquette that entails. But when etiquette is violated and the social contract is broken by the guest, how to react? We’re all taught to be polite, and especially women are taught to be meek and tolerant and acquiesce to the wishes of men. You’d like to think you’ll take charge, but there’s also this idea of the goalposts being moved, especially with Michelle Pfeiffer’s character pushing and pushing.

And in that way it’s also about the age of Trump, because people keep acting like Trump and Trump supporters can be beaten with the old ways: logic and being the better person. But those kind of people don’t play by the rules and will just knock the chessboard over if they’re losing. So mother! seems to say the only way to retaliate is with similar tactics. Except all that does is destroy mother in the end, while Him gets to repeat the cycle ad infinitum.

I really love desolation, and it did tickle those parts of my brain as mother wasn’t allowed to leave the house as part of the gaslighting. There’s inklings of there being an outside world, as the Abel-esque brother is taken to a hospital, but that all seems to be a veil surrounding the house. There’s nothing beyond that front door, just the abyss. And the cyclical aspect of players within a space acting out their roles over and over definitely reminds me of Samuel Beckett.

It’s fascinating that there’s not a Satan figure. If every character can be seen as a 1:1 parallel with a Biblical analogue, then it’s rather telling that there’s no temptation aspect. It’s key to the Biblical story, especially Genesis, that Satan is there in the Garden to tempt Eve with the Tree of Knowledge and the Forbidden Fruit. Here, however, Michelle Pfeiffer’s “woman” is compelled to investigate Him’s crystal on her own. In that way it shifts the responsibility of Original Sin entirely on to man. All the horrible events that eventually tear the house down are on mankind without any outside intervention.

Or, you can argue Him is both God and Satan figure, as the 120-minute narrative presents the entirety of history and God’s grand plan is rejected by Mother Earth.

Or, mother is Satan. After all, Satan worked as a kind of muse for God. Satan means, in Hebrew, “to oppose,” and the role of Satan before his rebellion was to question God. God, being questioned, would provide answers, thus cementing concepts into reality. He needed the questions to find the answers. And mother certainly keeps asking Him why things keep happening, something He explores through His creation. It’s telling, after all, that she descends down into the basement (Hell) to bring about the destruction of the house.

In short, Aronofsky’s got sympathy for the devil.

So a year on, what is this movie’s lasting influence? The biggest indicator is Childish Gambino’s “This is America” video that was released in May and immediately made a splash. Upon my first viewing something was niggling in the back of my brain, and I realized it reminded me of the last 15 minutes of mother! It’s a spiraling, funhouse tour through microcosms of war, executions and persecutions, and both the movie and the music video utilize much of the same imagery.

So I was very pleased to discover this Twitter thread that broke down the visual parallels between the two texts. Obviously the difference lies in “This is America” being through the lens of the black experience, whereas mother! is the oppression of women throughout history. But the nonchalant murdering and obliviousness/apathy of the masses really ties the two together thematically.

I view the entire movie as Lawrence’s character being women throughout history, with men (and subtly sexist other women) talking down to her, mansplaining to her, and basically constantly trying to put her in her place. This culminates in the last stretch that’s not exclusively images of women being oppressed but is a violent world created by man being seen through the eyes of woman. This is very similar to how “This is America” is very much about white violence perpetrated upon black people (from white policemen killing black men to the Charleston church shooting) but there are no white people in the video.

So I was very pleased, consequently, to discover a week after viewing the video that director Hiro Murai (Atlanta) was intentionally referencing mother! As he told Indiewire, he was definitely inspired by the movie:

Murai revealed his elevator pitch for “This Is America” when asked what his influences were behind the camera: “[I was inspired] by the idea of a dance video that took place in the last 20 minutes of the movie ‘mother!’ or in the world of ‘City of God.’”

This does, however, get back to the problem I had with mother! being full allegory. “This is America” can cram in whatever apocalyptic imagery it wants in just a few minutes because it’s operating by different storytelling rules. Music videos, by their nature, have to be big and broad and tend to be more about conveying theme within certain constraints. Aronofsky has apparently directed a few music videos, namely one for Metallica in 2011, but that’s not exactly his influence. It’s not like how David Fincher started off doing music videos and that translates over into his entire career.

Aronofsky seems to have spent the last 20 years wanting to be freed from the constraints of narrative. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan, there’s only a loose thread of plot connecting scene to scene. It’s much more about imagery. By mother! he seems to have abandoned plot altogether, with some lip service to the Bible. And sure, I can appreciate what he’s doing here. It’s much more about atmosphere and conveying feeling. But I need something to hang on to in terms of character.

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