Darren Aronofsky’s mother! starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer is the most clearly Christian mainstream movie since The Passion of the Christ. A superbly acted, ably directed, mediocre Paradise Lost, the film confounds critics, particularly on the Right, and their confusion buttresses the movie’s vision.
The consensus among reviewers and audiences of all stripes is that mother! is an environmentalist diatribe in which Lawrence’s character Mother represents Mother Nature or Gaia as a poor, put-upon young woman abandoned by God and man.
John Nolte takes this view in Breitbart. He writes, “Lawrence is Mother Earth (or Gaia) and Bardem is the Christian God” while he accuses the movie of being “stridently” anti-Christian and anti-human. Kyle Smith in National Review takes invective further, calling the film offensive to Christians and “the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios.” The Guardian considers mother! “an eco-parable,” and Forbes insists that this “tasteless nightmare” carries an “environmental undertone.” The most common adjective in mainstream (read: left-wing) reviews is “confounding.”
The confusion arises from a single error: Lawrence's character Mother isn’t Mother Earth — she’s Satan. The movie isn’t an environmental screed but rather a Miltonian Christian allegory told from the perspective of a sympathetic Satan. Intense close-ups of Lawrence’s eyes constitute a significant portion of the film’s shots, and the repeated appearance of palliative drugs and her corroding, blackening heart suggests Mother’s point of view may not be entirely reliable.
Mother lives in a paradisiacal country home with God imagined as her poet husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. Their bucolic life is interrupted when Man and Woman, representing Adam and Eve and portrayed by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, barge in and start breaking things. Him welcomes Man, Woman, and countless of their friends and family despite the havoc they wreak, all to Mother’s great and understandable consternation. Aronofsky provides a painstakingly faithful telling of the Bible from Genesis through the Resurrection. We see a loving Creator, Adam replete with missing rib, Eve, the Garden, the forbidden fruit, the Fall of Man, Cain, Abel, God’s marking Cain, the incarnation of God’s son, the Crucifixion, the voluntary fall of Lucifer into Hell, forgiveness, and redemption. mother! portrays paradise lost as a psychological thriller.
Nevertheless, the misinterpretation of Mother as Mother Earth is an easy mistake to make. Lawrence and Aronofsky have both voiced some support for a reading of Mother as Gaia. But then, who cares? Artists often misinterpret their own work. Even if Aronofsky intends a lesson in environmentalism for his audience, the film is sufficiently faithful to the biblical narrative that Mother as Satan rather than Gaia emerges as the more coherent and edifying story.
Lucifer is God’s beautiful bringer of dawn whose deluded self-absorption and jealousy make “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” There are few actresses more beautiful than Lawrence, and her portrayal fits that characterization throughout. The film’s most daring and profound symbol is Satan’s blackened heart as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Satan tempts with subtlety, exclusively by telling man what not to do, and the presence of man progressively blackens Satan’s heart and turns its once unrivaled love for God to hate. Satan takes the most intimate role imaginable — God’s pregnant wife — because the film exclusively presents Mother’s perspective on her intimacy to Him, her importance in His home, and her ever-increasing self-pity. Sympathy for the devil should startle Christian audiences out of the sentimental complacency and shallowness that Aronofsky assails in his humans.
All the spoilers
The film’s horrifying presentation of the Blessed Sacrament scandalizes squeamish audiences, but Christians offended by Aronofsky’s depiction of the ravenous men who devour God’s son validate his portrayal of them. The temptation to root for Mother as she inveighs against her infinitely loving maker, casts herself literally into the fire beneath the earth, and destroys all of creation paints a terrifying portrait the attractiveness of the tempter and the enormous power of self-delusion.
In the final scene, Mother sets herself and all of paradise aflame. Only Him is left uninjured. He asks for her love, tells her implausibly amidst the ash that he will create, and rips her heart from her chest to form with the little love left the gemstone that at once recreates the world and also contains the seeds of its destruction should man use his free will for evil, all while a cross of light shimmers in the ruined background. By this point, the Mother as Gaia interpretation falls apart entirely, and we are left either befuddled or in holy fear of Mother as Satan’s thorough, disconcerting portrait of the insidiousness of sin and magnitude of God’s love and inventiveness.
One almost wonders whether Aronofsky hasn’t paid lip service to the Mother Earth interpretation simply to con mainstream audiences into watching the Bible for two hours. In any case, audiences should not allow misinterpretation even by the auteur to keep them from a serious and original, albeit imperfect, film — particularly at a time when callow comic books sequels abound to the total neglect of thought-provoking films for adults.