"mother!" is a film that is best experienced knowing as little as possible about it going in. This review will give away major story points and discuss the plot, themes and interpretations of the film, so if you wish to first draw your own conclusions you should stop reading here. For everyone else, let's jump in.
Following a brief opening sequence where we see Jennifer Lawrence standing in the middle of an inferno. What appears to be some sort of mysterious jewel is set in place and we see a charred and blackened house magically restored. Jennifer Lawrence's character awakens and immediately calls out to her husband, played by Javier Bardem. We learn that he is a poet who is struggling to write, while Lawrence busies herself with painting and renovating their idyllic home. The rural setting of their house is apparently isolated from the world, with Lawrence looking out at the surrounding fields and trees, at peace with the world. Unfortunately, this peace is short lived with the arrival of Ed Harris's character, a fan of the poet's work, and later his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Their sudden appearance discomfort's the young woman, though her husband welcomes their arrival and allows them to stay. Things take a further turn for the worse with the arrival of their sons, halfway through an argument, and the murder of one of them by the other. They are told to leave by Lawrence, but soon invited back, along with many more people for a funeral gathering. Soon the people fall to drinking, having sex with one another, and generally disobeying Lawrence as she asks them to respect her home. After a water main bursts causing the house to flood, they are forced to leave. Lawrence and Bardem are once again alone and following a night of passion she becomes pregnant with his child. This miracle prompts Bardem to write his magnum opus and once again the house becomes filled with fans, his publisher, and more zealous followers. Things spiral drastically out of control as the people begin stealing objects of worship from the house, beginning a cult in the name of the poet, there is murder, bloodshed and debauchery everywhere Lawrence turns. When she finally gives birth to her child she is reluctant to allow Bardem to hold the young infant boy.
However, when she falls asleep he gives the boy up to the crowd. This portion of the film is perhaps the most shocking, though not unexpected for audiences who have picked up on the clues thus far. The crowd kill the child and begin devouring parts of him. Lawrence, unable to forgive them, rushes downstairs and sets the house on fire. Bardem, taking her charred body from the remains of the house retrieves her heart, crumbling away the hardened outer layer to reveal the shining jewel from the beginning of the film. Setting this in place, the house is restored, beginning the whole cycle again.
The plot of the film is essentially a retelling of the stories of the old and new testaments. Javier Bardem, the poet, is representative of God, often sitting in his high office, working on his masterpiece. He is shown to be compassionate, taking in strangers, but also somewhat prideful and uncaring when it comes to the worries of Lawrence's character. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, entering paradise, it is Pfeiffer's smashing of the sacred jewel, the apple from the tree of knowledge, that causes the later troubles. Their sons, Cain and Able, the 'great flood' following the debauchery of the party, all of these can be seen as representative of well-known parts of that story. Lawrence's character is perhaps the most complex one to read. It is clear that in the second part of the film, she assumes the role of Mary, giving birth to God's child who is later destroyed by the crowds who adore him, and becomes part of their rituals with the consumption of his flesh. However, earlier in the film it is perhaps harder to place her. It is possible that she is intended as Mother Earth, responsible for life and renewal, as we see her attempting to put right the destruction caused by earlier events. She is referred to as a goddess at one point in the movie. The title of the film also offers us a clue in this direction. The biblical reading of the story helps us to understand the plot. Without this understanding events seem to escalate at a ridiculous speed and perhaps don't necessarily follow logically from one another. It is certainly interesting to see this modern retelling of the old story.
However, more intriguing is the films commentary on religion itself. We see it throughout as a destructive force, more and more so as the film progresses. But as with much criticism of religion, much of the ire is devoted to the adherents of the religion rather than God himself. We see people behaving abhorrently because of their devotion to this man, fighting amongst themselves stealing, later imprisoning people, brutalising other humans, and even going so far as to kill an innocent child.
With the reading of Lawrence's character as Mother Earth there is perhaps also an ecological message to the film, one of particular relevance in this age of global warming. The idea that the world will be consumed in an inferno can be seen as Apocalypse, reckoning for humanities sins, and as the impending ecological disaster if people don't sort out their priorities. There is a definite thread throughout of people ignoring Lawrence to follow Bardem, or ignoring the Earth to follow God. A feminist reading is also possible here, with a focus on masculinity over femininity, though perhaps more proper to say a focus on destruction over creation.
The ending of the film is perhaps the most difficult part to explain, with the rebirth of the world. The pessimistic reading is that humanity is doomed to cycles of destruction and resurrection. A more positive reading, given that it is Lawrence's love that renews everything, is that devotion and love can be a powerful force capable of righting wrongs. It is a film that certainly allows for a little personal interpretation in its conclusion.
As with much of Aronofsky's filmography it is a film that is packed with creative ideas and there are perhaps more details that would reward subsequent viewings. The cinematography is both intimate and disconcerting, with constant close-ups and hand-held camera work. The entire film takes place inside the same house and for the most part the audience follows Lawrence's character around, seeing events from her perspective. When people being coming in you feel as though they are entering your own personal space, you share every emotion with her. The stand-out sequence in terms of direction is certainly the extended, almost montage-like, portion where we see humanities basest instincts playing out with terrible consequences. As Lawrence moves from room to room, and horror to horror, it is hard not to feel her sense of nausea at what she is witnessing having lost all control of her own house.
I would highly recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of film-making, acting and storytelling. It has a singular vision that it pulls off admirably, achieving its goal and then some. It manages to build tension, create characters that you are curious about, and understands perfectly dramatic structure, while at the same time telling a deeper and more meaningful story about humanities timeless struggles.