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by Kathi Maio

Get Off the Sink and Other Unheeded Commandments

Is there anything in this world that creates more division and hatred than religion? If there is, I can't name it. Although faith in a higher power brings guidance and comfort to hundreds of millions, it also inspires some of us to apply something less than the Golden Rule to our neighbors. Religion inspires holocausts and jihads and a too-firm belief that although you personally know the one, true blueprint for building a stairway to heaven, that guy in the next house/town/country who identifies with a different religion is clearly going to hell in a handbasket— and good riddance.

All religions seem to inspire their own bad behaviors, too. I used to think that Buddhists had finally gotten it right. Working on self, rather than judging others, seemed like a viable way to create a peaceful theology. But then I started reading stories about ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, where hardline monks are leading a brutal expulsion of Rohingya Muslims in their own country. Sigh. It's enough to make you despair for humanity as well as divinity.

Yes, diverse theologies cause a lot of strife on this earth. So, it is somehow appropriate that Darren Aronofsky's latest film, Mother!, a strange rumination on God, religion, myth-making, and our relationship to the natural world, is one of the most divisive movies released in the last few years. Critics and audiences have been galvanized by the film. Love it or hate it? You bet! This is one of those movies people storm out from, or see multiple times to catch all the nuance in its allegorical story. Some critics found it disgusting. Others found it brilliant. And opening weekend audiences—who were probably expecting something closer to a traditional farce or horror flick—gave the movie a dreaded and highly unusual F CinemaScore.

I really do think it was muddy marketing that caused much (but certainly not all) of the audience ill-will around the film. That is why I am feeling no compunction to stay mum about the plot, the characters, or my interpretation of Mr. Aronofsky's audacious parable. Consider yourself warned with a big fat spoiler alert, gentle reader. I plan on exposing a lot about this movie.

Let's start with the basics. Mother! is not (as it has sometimes been tagged) a traditional horror movie, although it contains elements of that genre. And certain horrific scenes will indeed make you cringe, gasp, or even turn your face away. Some critics have also called the movie hilarious and a real hoot. But if you stream Mother! thinking it will be a feel-good comedy or even a simple social farce, you will be sorely disappointed. It is worth knowing—and star Jennifer Lawrence agrees with me on this—that this movie is an allegory that plays with much of the Old Testament before spinning into a chaotic indictment of Homo sapiens on Earth.

After a few unsettling opening frames that only make sense at the very end of the movie, the story opens with a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence), never named, awakening to find her husband is no longer with her in bed. She pads barefoot through her home, at first sleepy and puzzled, and then her pace quickens, as she seems mildly panicked at him not being there. Then, suddenly, there he is, an older "Poet" (Javier Bardem), also never named, seemingly suffering from writer's block. The two settle into their daily routines; he to tackle his writing demons, and she to continue her one-woman renovation of their massive old manse, deep in the country.

It's a good life. The man is self-absorbed but happy to receive the homemaking devotion of his younger bride. And she is content to do for him. She makes gourmet meals, plasters walls, and just generally exhibits the characteristics of a domestic goddess. (Literally, as it turns out.)

But while finalizing the best shade for one room, she places her hand on the wall and can feel (just as the audience sees) the pulsing, organic life beneath the surface. And if that image doesn't convince you that things are not what they appear to be in this story, then fasten your seatbelt. Things only get stranger from this point out.

For, soon, there is a stranger (Ed Harris), also unnamed—you get the trend here, right?—at the door. He claims to be an orthopedist in need of a bed. Hubby explains that the man thought they were a bed & breakfast. The Poet seems pleased to have the stranger stay, despite the strenuous objections of his wife. And before you know it, the orthopedist's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) also shows up. She is an acid-tongued hedonist, and Pfeiffer plays her to the hilt. The older woman likes sex and booze and other worldly pleasures. She even advises her hostess to get a move on in making some babies, as kids are important, while creating a nurturing home is "all just 'setting.'" It's certainly a rude thing to say to someone putting you up (and putting up with you). But that is where the comedy plays out best in this film.

Like the late great Rodney Dangerfield, the lady of the house gets no respect. Her husband doesn't seem to care about her concerns and needs. And the people who invade her home ignore even her modest house rules not to smoke inside or sit on her unbraced kitchen sink. Her frustration is almost palpable, and is all the more absurdly funny since the role is being played by Ms. Lawrence, heretofore known for her fiercely dynamic and often iconic female heroes.

At this point, the film plays like a farce. Albeit one with slightly creepy overtones. But then the chaos factor ramps up and the plot takes a darker turn when the adult sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) of the visiting home invaders also crash the party, bringing a desperate family drama with them. Tragedy plays out, followed by a home-alone scene that seems to come straight out of a teen horror flick playbook. Soon, more strangers arrive to trash the home and show their contempt for our little earth mother. But all is not lost. After this latest assault on her home, a confrontation between the husband and wife leads to a stormy sexual encounter and reconciliation.

The young woman is now with child and happily tries to heal her house, which now includes a floorboard stigmata, and prepare for her child's birth. The Poet also appears to have gotten his groove back. He writes a new work (bizarrely contained on a single sheet) which is immediately and magically embraced not only by his publisher (Kristen Wiig, in an unforgettable cameo) but with countless hoards of adoring fans who descend, craving His attention and approval. But their devotion is decidedly destructive. They tear up His house for souvenirs, devolve into conflict and factional violence, and eventually destroy all their aghast hostess holds dear. Her home is torn and blown to shreds while the ever-growing mob darkly clamors toward their mutual self-destruction.

The final scenes of Mother! are frenetic and ugly and like nothing you have ever seen on film. According to how you take the movie, you may also hope that you never see anything like them again.

I don't need to tell you what I think everything means, but I do think it helps to know that this is a neo-Biblical tale of creation, destruction, and renewal involving a self-indulgent patriarchal God who loves his creative process much more than the world he creates, or the beings that inhabit it. He is a narcissist with a hunger for adulation, who finds young brides interchangeable and chaos infinitely entertaining.

Ms. Lawrence, who has the look of a Botticelli Venus, also brings to mind the moist, mournful Madonnas of Audrey Flack. She is on the screen, and in close-up, for almost the entire film, but although she first comes off like a hippie housewife who watched too much HGTV, she soon takes on the mantle of a poor put-upon victim—barefoot and pregnant, or otherwise. After a while, it becomes distressing to watch her. She is so powerless to protect what she loves and what she is.

I was glad to learn that Darren Aronofsky consulted with feminist philosopher Susan Griffin (Woman and Nature) while constructing his fable. But, despite that fact, his movie didn't seem at all informed by feminism. It seemed to revel in the patriarch's will to exploit and destroy a female life-force that wants nothing more than to love and nurture him.

It's depressing as hell. And, in one sense, it is designed to be. Mixed in with all the religious imagery and symbolism is a clear environmental message. Alas, it is one that doesn't offer much hope to those of us currently praying to our God (whatever He might be called) to deliver us from the floods, droughts, storms, famines, and rising sea levels that indicate that Gaia is none too pleased with her treatment at the hands of her children.

Still, pretentious and overblown as it most certainly is, there is enjoyment to be had while watching (or even re-watching) Mother! Performances like that of Michelle Pfeiffer in her supporting role are certainly a pleasure. And then there's figuring out who everyone is and what everything might symbolize. For example, have you deciphered which Biblical figure Ms. Pfeiffer represents? I was relatively circumspect in describing her family story, so you might not have her pegged. But once her narrative plays out, you will very likely know.

Another secondary amusement is spotting all the previous movies the filmmaker gives a nod to in this odd, allegorical amalgam. Mr. Aronofsky has cited Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel as an inspiration, while, at times, I seemed to glimpse a passing reference to a half dozen other films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and horror classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Shining.

As the F audience CinemaScore poll would indicate, this movie is certainly not for everyone. It is an experiment in shock-and-awe moviemaking, and not completely successful. Still, if it makes one audience member question the sometimes destructive power of religion and encourages one viewer to be a more active steward of our shared home, poor Jennifer Lawrence will not have suffered in vain.

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