This article contains spoilers for mother!
When I left a screening of mother! the other week, like everyone else, I was flabbergasted and speechless. It took me a good few hours before I was able to form a coherent opinion about the home-invasion film/drama/horror/psychological thriller/black comedy – as you can imagine, there's a lot to unpack – but when I did, the first thing I realised was how visceral my anger was. Anger on behalf of the unnamed Mother, played by a magnetic Jennifer Lawrence. Anger on behalf of the people – let's face it, mostly women – throughout history who’ve had to put up with the sort of shit she goes through at the hands of her (also unnamed) husband, Him (Javier Bardem). The pair's marriage has to be one of the most fucked up things I've seen, and not just in film.
There are many threads in mother! for viewers to pick up and run with – the New York Post described it as “a Rorschach test of a movie to interpret however you like”. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky has said it “works as a truthful, realistic relationship movie... but also works on an allegorical plane, too”; it was decidedly the former that freaked me out most. Forget the biblical metaphors, environmental symbolism, the blood and the gore – by far the most horrifying aspect of the film is its exploration of life with a self-obsessed "creative type" for whom the allure of fame and having a cult following is addictive and more important than anything else, including their partner and children. mother! paints an all-too-real picture of the way women are sidelined, manipulated and taken for granted by certain men.
As the film unfolds, it’s clear to anyone with a basic understanding of psychology that He is a narcissist, turned on by the adoration of strangers. If Mother had perused any of the myriad "How To Spot A Narcissist" articles published in recent years in light of our celebrity culture, digital oversharing and the ascendance of Trump, she would have run a mile. Instead, she's stuck with Him, an acclaimed 48-year-old poet with a horde of desperate fans to appease. He’s insufferable during his writer’s block phase but, when it clears, living with him becomes impossible. He’s so caught up with creating the next masterpiece – he hasn't produced anything decent in a while – that he rejects his 27-year-old wife's wishes while expecting her to dote on him and tend to his every need.
Curiously, the protagonists are the same age as Lawrence and Aronofsky, who began dating just after filming had finished. Critics have speculated as to whether Bardem's character was modelled on the director himself but Aronofsky has (unsurprisingly) denied it. “I can see how people will especially make the connection with this one. But it’s also all fiction; it’s all smoke and mirrors," he told The Guardian. "And if anything, my empathy here is more with the mother. I’m probably more Jen’s character than I am Javier’s.” That's heartening, at least, but while the creators may have been rooting for Mother, they sure have a funny way of showing it.
Lawrence's character is a devoted housewife who puts her all into creating the perfect tranquil Eden for the couple and hopefully, one day, the children she is so desperate to have (although He shows no sexual interest in her). "I want to make a paradise," she professes and, indeed, their hexagonal home is a masterpiece even in its unfinished state. At my screening I heard someone call the film "the best episode of Grand Designs" they'd ever seen. Meanwhile, He paces the house trying – and failing – to write, while barely acknowledging his wife's efforts.
The events that unfold leave Mother increasingly dazed, doubting her own sanity and unsafe in her own home, until she (finally) realises nothing she does will ever be enough for her self-important spouse. It's clear something bizarre is going on when He opens up their home to a mysterious man, who turns out to be an obsessive fan (Ed Harris), and his invasive, confrontational wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) without so much as consulting his wife privately. (If you’ve ever had plans thwarted by some rando casually showing up unannounced, you’ll relate.) And not only that, but the intruders also seem to regard Mother as the poet’s appendage – his “inspiration” – a label that He happily goes along with.
His willingness to override his wife’s nesting instinct is a metaphor for how women are still denied control over even their most intimate spaces. Lawrence, a self-proclaimed feminist, has spoken about the toll of acting out these emotionally draining scenes. “I had to go to a darker place than I’ve ever been in my life,” she admitted to Vogue. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to come out OK.” She even tore her diaphragm during one scene while hyperventilating "because of the emotion," Aronofsky said, and the film crew apparently had to rig up a “Kardashian tent” on set so the actor could unwind between scenes.
Watching the central relationship unfold – and ultimately combust – is so frightening because we know Mother could be us. Any one of us could fall in love – and become trapped in a relationship – with someone whose talent and intense, demonic charm leave us intoxicated. “I gave you everything,” she tells her husband at the end of the film. “I have nothing left to give.” To which he replies that, actually, she still has a heart, and he proceeds to plunge his hand into her chest and tear it out. And then she really has sacrificed everything – and for what?