Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mother! exploits parents' fears in more ways than one

Photo: Paramount Pictures

This article reveals major plot points of the movie Mother!

I’m having a kid in November—my first—and so I am finding myself newly susceptible to emotions I had always passed off as mere sentiment. Of all the heartrending stories and images that came out of the recent hurricanes, the image that most haunted me was of a makeshift floating crib, loaded up with blankets and toys fit for an infant. What wreaked havoc upon me was a single detail: The stuffed animal sitting to the baby’s side, a sole measure of comfort placed by a hopeful and terrified parent. A year ago, this detail would’ve left me unfazed; here it was almost too specific and small to gaze directly upon. Last week, I came across a different video, captioned “a father’s rage,” in which a bereaved father lashed out at the person who raped and murdered his son. It was raw and exploitative, the type of thing you’d come across in particularly ugly corners of Reddit, and after watching it I wanted to take a shower. But I also felt it more keenly now that I’ve seen a heartbeat I’m responsible for on an ultrasound, watched my wife laugh as that heartbeat powers a tiny human who does somersaults in her stomach at night. I’ve never had to perceive what it would be like for that heartbeat to stop on my watch, a concept that activated a cluster of anxieties that has lain dormant in my brain for decades.

And while I have faith that, at some point, I will learn to mute them with the studied detachment that is my response to literally everything else on the planet, in the meantime I am wandering through the world with this weird, newfound sensitivity, overstimulating myself accidentally and generally acclimating myself to a constant, low-level terror about the future of humanity. For some reason, amid this rising tide of panic, going to see Mother! seemed like a good idea to both of us. I’ve always been a fan of Darren Aronofsky’s most go-for-broke tendencies—give me Pi over The Wrestler any day—and I figured him doing Rosemary’s Baby would be intense but worthwhile. My wife, meanwhile, confessed, after we both doddered out of the theater shell-shocked and clammy-handed, that she thought it was going to be some sort of ghost story. Let the record show that we were both extremely wrong. As audiences have discovered to their revulsion nationwide, Rosemary’s Baby this ain’t, even if it nods directly and explicitly at Polanski’s domestic horror films. Instead, Jennifer Lawrence’s titular character is beaten and nearly executed while pregnant, before giving birth, having the newborn baby taken from her, murdered, dismembered, and eaten by a mob of religious zealots, all before Lawrence herself is beaten and sexually abused by that same mob.

To be clear, I think it’s one of Aronofsky’s best films—dense, beautifully shot, and audacious. Audiences may not be kind to it, but history will, its pulpy exploration of eschatology and aesthetics shot, cut, and staged with a symphonic grandeur and clarity. But as we left, I couldn’t help but feel with a bracing freshness like a terrible husband and father, grabbing my extremely pregnant wife’s hand as we headed across the street to eat some ramen in what had, that morning, seemed like a nice way to end our Friday night, but had suddenly started to seem like some sort of primal, necessary act of post-Mother! rehabiliation. You don’t really go back to talking about decorating the nursery after seeing a baby get eaten. The movie seemed mathematically designed to jam a foot into the deepest anxieties of new parents. But it wasn’t exactly the cartoonishly violent, appalling images of the religious zealots, faces smeared with the baby’s blood, that got us. For my wife, it was the images of mob violence that lingered, seeing the mother righteously endure the labor of childbirth only to be humiliated and abused afterward. And for me, it was the images of that same mob strip-mining the house, devolving into warring tribes, that played to my deepest anxieties that we’re living at the end of history on a warming planet stuffed with too many people, who will only grow increasingly willing to kill each other as resources dwindle.

Every new parent, I know, has something like this—a bête noire that turns obsessive, whether it’s SIDS or autism or lead poisoning. David Lynch launched his career with a movie about his fear that his baby wouldn’t stop crying, which, having known parents who experienced exactly that, I understand as a very real sort of torture. But for me, the single animating terror of being a parent has focused exclusively and obsessively on climate change, a cause of deep midnight panic and, above all else, of constant simmering guilt, both over the little I have done to stop its forward march and over the callousness that lead to me bringing a new heartbeat into the world despite the certainty of this future. In a stereotypical bit of fatherly hubris, I feel like I can protect him from anything—disease, cars, loud neighbors, heartbreak, bullies, bad haircuts—but not from those hockey-stick graphs, one after the next, each clarifying how deeply and remarkably fucked our planet is.

And so, in part because the ramen took forever for some reason and in part because the movie spurred them all to the fore, we talked through these fears. What else are you going to do after watching Kristen Wiig brain an infidel? My wife likes horror movies but detests seeing violence against women on camera, and so we talked about that for awhile, whether Mother! qualified as the rare exception in which that violence felt thematically merited. And we talked out my unceasing terror about the environment, which Lawrence and Aronofsky have stated is the explicit point of the film, and whether or not its depiction of a cyclical apocalypse represented even a glimmer of hope or progressivism on the subject of conservation. There isn’t an easy answer to these questions, and so we kept talking, through the night and after we woke up the next day, increasingly coming around on the movie and feeling, in a way, grateful for the manner in which it gave voice to these anxieties. This isn’t the only function of horror, but it is a time-honored one, providing a contained way to open the boxes we keep shoving things in in the back of our heads. Much like “The Uninhabitable Earth,” the fear-mongering vision published earlier this year of a world in which all of climate change’s worst impacts are realized, Mother! is designed as a provocation. As a self-contained story, it finds redemption only in molten apocalypse, catharsis only in bloodshed, but its very existence is a counter to the misanthropic vision of humanity it portrays. You make a movie like Mother! when you retain hope that minds can still be changed, that all isn’t yet lost, for the planet or for the people inheriting it.

Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio.

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