No one who saw mother! will be shocked to learn that CinemaScore, which measures audience reactions, awarded the movie an “F.” It’s a tough watch, one that includes Buñuelian surrealism, two hours of abuse heaped upon star Jennifer Lawrence, and a ghastly sequence involving a newborn baby. Nobody exits the theater with a warm sense of reassurance.
But Christians might leave mother! feeling particularly uneasy. The movie’s plot promises a domestic drama—a young wife (Lawrence, billed as “Mother”) restores the house of her older poet husband (Javier Bardem, billed as “Him”) while dealing with increasingly unwelcome visitors—but what unfolds is a horror film rife with biblical allusions.
Writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Noah) shapes his story by borrowing from the Bible—all of it, from Genesis to Revelation. With his booming baritone and expansive smile, Bardem represents God, while nearly every other character can be mapped to someone from Scripture, including Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jesus, and the archangel Michael.
They all fit, save one—the titular Mother! She may, at times, recall Mary or the Holy Spirit, but Mother’s organic relationship to the house (suggested with dissolves from Lawrence touching a wall to an undefined circulatory system) and her passionate defense of her environment points to another religious figure: Gaia, or Mother Nature. As a mishmash of biblical references and feminine environmentalism, mother! offers a corrective for some aspects of contemporary Christianity, even as it ultimately misunderstands the God we know from the Bible.
If you only listened to the loudest voices representing Christianity today, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the faith was less than friendly toward both women and nature. Regarding the environment, it seems that some Christians have taken their lead from English philosopher John Locke, whose interpretation of the cultural mandate emphasized dominion over stewardship. One example? Climate change continues to be of less concern to evangelicals than to others. Meanwhile, literal readings of biblical passages dealing with ancient patriarchy or decontextualized understandings of Paul’s epistles have both devalued the role of women in the church. How can we be surprised, then, that people think Christians believe in a violent, masculine God, especially when some of us testify that he condones nuclear attacks or expresses satisfaction with the torture of his son?
mother! reflects this attitude in the mistreatment of Lawrence’s character, who appears in nearly every shot. Sometimes she seems at peace, as when working to restore her husband’s house or when she’s adoring and being loved by Him. Most of the time, however, she’s attacked by those Him allows into their home.
Long tracking shots show the house’s vastness and warmth when shared only by Mother and Him, but when other people arrive, Aronofsky switches methods. He tethers a handheld camera to Lawrence, trailing tightly behind her before whip-panning to extreme close-ups, making the audience one more invader in her space. The sound design captures noises coming from heretofore private rooms, as random visitors enter and exploit every inch of her home. Scene after scene features outsiders destroying the place, sometimes out of anger or carelessness and sometimes out of an egotistical “kindness,” as when guests repaint the foyer against Mother’s wishes.
As the tension mounts in the final act, it becomes clear that the movie’s idea of the Christian God and his followers are the source of Mother’s suffering. She loves and praises Him, but his desire for human worship overtakes his concerns for her safety. He lavishes attention on them, even as they disregard his commands and desecrate his wife’s house, child, and body.
It’s an unflattering portrait, though not entirely unfair. It’s a portrait for which we have sometimes posed. Fortunately, a closer look at Scripture reminds us that while Christians have at times mirrored Aronofsky’s abusive worshipers, nothing in the Bible justifies such misuse of women or nature. God’s majesty is intricately connected with the natural world in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah. Furthermore, theologians such as Mary Grey have sought to untangle the conflation between misogyny and environmental exploitation illustrated in mother! by calling attention to feminine images of God. When Jesus identifies himself as a mother hen, for example, we see little of the aggressive mentality that condones abuse of the planet.
mother! is not an enjoyable film for Christians, but it may be a necessary and even edifying one. It warns against behavior that proclaims a selfish, careless, and sexist god, and challenges us to give witness to the God of the Bible, a loving creator who rejoices in all of his creation, human or otherwise.