Mother! is Awesome

There haven’t been a lot of movies I’ve seen in the past year or so that I thought were great. Last month I saw Mother!, and it was awesome.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the more disturbing things in this movie, so I don’t think I need a “trigger warning” for this post. In fact, I tend to think they aren’t necessary in most cases.

But in this case, there is a seriously disturbing thing that happens near the end of the movie in pretty graphic visuals, so if you are at all queasy watching gruesome things, you might want to skip this movie.

It’s trendy to say things like: this book/movie can’t be described in words. It defies genre and expectation. It’s wildly inventive. Blah, blah, blah.

But in this case, it’s really true. I can’t even guess at a genre that would make sense. Some call it a psychological thriller. It might be closer to allegorical magical realism.

Around ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about one of the best things that can happen in a work of art (talking about Joanna Newsom’s album Ys). It’s when the art is based on very concrete, clear events that have high emotional resonance, but then it is all abstracted into something more universal.

Honestly, this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. That’s essentially the argument of Campbell’s “monomyth” theory.

Darren Aronofsky has done exactly this in Mother!

Interpretation Spoilers. I don’t plan to spoil plot things (if this movie even has a “plot” to be spoiled). But I’m going to give my interpretation of the movie as a way to describe it.

Here we go. You’re warned a second time.

Mother! is a history of the world as described in the Bible, but it’s done symbolically in a single house. The character known as Mother is Mother Earth. The house is her domain/Earth. The character known as Him is God.

To give you a feel for how the symbolism plays out, I’ll try to describe some stuff in the beginning. Mother and Him are living in the house. Then a man shows up. This is Adam. Then his wife shows up. This is Eve. Him gives free reign of the house to them except they can’t touch his crystal thing (Tree of Knowledge), which has the power to let him write his profound poetry (the Word/Bible).

Mother doesn’t really understand why Him is letting these humans run amok without consulting her first. Eventually, they touch and break the crystal thing, so he banishes them from his office (the Garden of Eden). The couple’s children come, and they play out the Cain and Abel story symbolically.

This goes on and on. It’s all very obvious–even on a first viewing.

At this point you might be thinking: that sounds terrible. And if that was it, it would be terrible. Here’s where it gets awesome.

The whole thing is filmed in this claustrophobic framing of Mother. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is insanely good. She might be in every second of this movie. As people start to fill up the house/Earth and the people start to break things and overpopulate and pollute, she gets more and more upset and confused and scared.

Mother has no idea why any of this is happening, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. One of the most chilling parts of the movie is when she asks one of the people who is breaking something, “Why are you doing this?” He replies, “Because He gave it to us.” (Or something like that. I don’t have the movie in front of me and it’s been a while to recall exact wording).

How many times have you heard this from certain politicized Christians when asked why they aren’t concerned about climate change and destroying the Earth?

To me, this is the point of the movie. It personifies the Earth and then puts the viewer inside of her mental state. It’s a terrible experience, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to make you think about your own actions in the world from a different perspective.

I do have some problems with it. For example, this obviously isn’t a great way to make the rational argument, because it basically boils down to: how would you feel if you were the Earth? The symbolism and message are so overt and strong, it leaves a bit of a sour taste at the end.

It’s quite interesting to see what most other people have written as problems with the movie. The first type of hater thinks the more disturbing aspects of the movie serve no purpose other than shock value. They think the movie is a pretentious and pointless “arty” film. Then they go on to point out: it’s not even that shocking or gruesome.

Of course it isn’t! That fact alone should make one consider: this isn’t what the movie is intending to do.

As I’ve pointed out already, this criticism can be dismissed as complete nonsense. The opposite is true. It’s too obvious what the movie is about, and hence it cannot be the case that the movie is about nothing and a pure shockfest.

The more interesting criticism can be summarized by this comment: “Jennifer Lawrence’s character infuriated me. She kept making reasonable requests, and everyone ignored them. It was like she had no agency. She spends the entirety of the film in a state of traumatized bewilderment. It made me deeply uncomfortable and annoyed.”

Well, yeah! That’s literally what the movie set out to do. The fact that it succeeded in its goal shouldn’t be seen as some sort of negative criticism and a reason to hate the movie.

The real question is: were you annoyed enough to look at your own actions and make some changes, or are you going to continue to be the people you despised in the movie, wrecking the house of someone with no agency to stop you?

That’s what makes Mother! awesome. Not only does it evoke visceral reactions in those that watch it, but it asks the viewer to bring those reactions back to the real world and do something about it.


Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

I’ll warn you up front that this is going to make extensive reference to the movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much a spoiler warning, because this isn’t the type of movie that can be spoiled. It’s more to warn you that you will have no idea what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. This is one of the best movies ever made, so go watch it if you haven’t. I’ve tried to watch it at least once a year since it came out.

Background material: The movie follows Caden Cotard, a middle-aged director of plays who wins a MacArthur grant. He decides to put on a gigantic semi-improvisational play about death. This ends up getting super meta, because he hires actors to play people in his life, including himself. Then there has to be actors to play those actors, etc.

Early on, Caden’s wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter along. Ellen is introduced as Adele’s cleaning lady late in the movie.

Caden is also a hypochondriac. He believes he has a million things wrong with him throughout the movie and that he is about ready to die at any moment. This amount of background should suffice. The key is to know the names Caden, Adele, and Ellen.

This is going to be a complicated argument that involves seemingly unrelated concepts. So I’ll start with the conclusion so you know where I’m headed.

Conclusion: Ellen is Caden’s true self.

Concept 1: Caden only experiences his true self while cleaning.

Because of all his anxieties about art, being remembered, dying from a random disease or freak accident, and so on, he can’t ever clear his head enough to find himself. One way the film shows this is through the TV. Caden often appears on the TV screen in cartoons or commercials, and these give voice to the anxieties in his head at the time.

There are several scenes where Caden obsessively cleans things. As soon as this happens, the TV fogs over, and the anxious thoughts disappear. He becomes so consumed in the mindless activity that he can exist as his true self, sort of like meditation.

Concept 2: People see Ellen inside Caden when he is his true self.

There are quite a few moments where Caden gets called Ellen on accident early on in the movie. I interpret this as a Freudian slip. Everyone knows this person is beneath the layers of anxiety, but they don’t consciously know; it merely slips out on occasion.

The more compelling case comes from later in the movie. Caden goes to Adele’s apartment, and the next door neighbor asks if he is Ellen. He says he is, and then goes into the apartment and cleans for the whole night.

The deepest argument for this is that when Adele paints Caden’s portrait, the image is of a woman, Millicent, whose role in this argument is quite important.

Caden’s portrait:


Millicent playing the role of Ellen:


Since the whole movie is constantly about how art shows us things about ourselves we couldn’t see, we should interpret this as the painting showing us the person beneath Caden’s surface.

Concept 3: Millicent is the physical stand-in for Ellen.

Millicent gets hired to play Ellen in Caden’s play. This is already telling, because her lines are, of course, the ones that Caden said already. This is because Caden claimed to be Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, in order to be in her apartment.

Later, Millicent recalls a story from Ellen’s childhood. She cries at the end of it. I interpret this to mean the story is from her own childhood. She even cries out about failing to fulfill her promise to her mother, which would make no sense if the mother in the story weren’t her own:


Concept 4: Caden becomes his true self at the end of the movie, and the false, anxious exterior becomes the hidden self.

This is shown metaphorically in the movie by having Millicent stop playing the role of Ellen and start playing the role of Caden. The voice inside Caden’s head literally becomes the voice of Millicent/Ellen through the use of a earpiece.

But if this doesn’t convince you, the last piece of evidence is the final scene. The woman who played Ellen’s mother in the dream appears. What? This is extremely easy to miss and write off on a first viewing. The movie is over 2 hours long, and she only makes a 30 second appearance in the last 10 minutes in a dream sequence.

There is literally no other character with such a small role. Why would a meticulously crafted movie end with this character other than to stand out as vitally important? This woman holds Caden as if he is her baby. But we only know this character as Ellen’s mother. This makes Caden her child, Ellen.

The voice in Caden’s head even blurts out “You are Ellen” on the walk to this encounter.



On the couch he says, “I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter.” That was what Ellen wanted to do. He has fully become her/his true self at this point. Without this interpretation, that line makes no sense. They converse as if they are mother and daughter here.

In a sense, this means the whole movie is the journey of Caden to find and become his true self.

Movie Hidden Gems 1

I’ve decided I’m going to periodically do a “hidden gems” post. I realized this is one of my favorite uses of the internet as a reader. When I’m looking for a new good book, movie, music, or anything, I tend to hunt out people’s lists of hidden gems. The random lists I’ve found out there have been extremely helpful in learning about things I’d never have found otherwise.

I’ll start with a few movies. These may not be what I consider to be the greatest movies I’ve ever seen, but I think they are absolutely excellent and the main goal is to pick ones I think the least number of people will have been exposed to.

Quiet City (2007). Back when mumblecore was a thing (why did this genre die out again?), I was obsessed with it. I’ve seen pretty much everything that came out of those few years under that heading. Now that that phase is over I would never recommend most of what I saw, though there are certainly a few standouts.

Quiet City took the idea to a new level and created a devastatingly beautiful work of art. This is not for fans of fast pacing and strong story. The whole movie takes place in the course of a single 24 hour period, and follows the slow forming of a new relationship from a chance, accidental meeting in the subway.

It often feels like an urban reshooting of a Terrence Malick film. Instead of interspersing long nature shots, there are long beautiful shots of industrial NYC. The film brilliantly draws out the awkwardness of trying to think of things to do while bored with someone you’ve never met. From an impromptu running race in the park to randomly visiting a friend, there are always things going on even if they are unconventional events for a movie.

If you think of it as action oriented, then you’ve totally missed the point. This is a film whose purpose is to show a natural and realistic development of a relationship, and it succeeds like no film I’ve ever seen because mainstream movies tends to force contrived situations to keep the watcher interested. The film also tries to capture a demographic native to the mumblecore genre: the poor, jobless, artsy, bored city dweller. The attention to detail is amazing and readily manifests itself in such situations as serving wine from an oversized coffee cup.

This movie is definitely not for everyone, but it is a hidden gem if you give it a chance.

Ink (2009). Maybe this isn’t so hidden anymore, because you might have clicked on it when it became available on Netflix (this is how I stumbled upon it). This is a low budget epic fantasy. The concept is fascinating and done extremely well. I can’t say too much without giving away what’s going on, but essentially there is a sort of dream world and the real world and they aren’t completely separate.

I was far more captivated by this film than most high budget movies of the same genre, mostly because they did a great job of revealing what’s going on in just enough increments to keep you guessing. Then once you get the hang of it, you are far enough along that it is high suspense to a carefully orchestrated ending that ties everything together.

The character design is fantastic. You have everything from standard epic fantasy tropes to totally original concepts. The “bad guys” have these static screen faces which are really creepy. The fight scenes are brilliantly done, because they aren’t happening in the physical world even though the physical world is the setting, so as they break things in the fight the things snap back together since they haven’t really broken. The cinematography, artistic rendering of characters, and special effects are actually really impressive for such a low budget.

I can’t remember for sure, but there might be some sort of loop paradox that happens (i.e. an accidental plot hole). If this type of thing bothers you, then you might want to skip this movie. If you are just looking for something thoroughly entertaining and original in the fantasy genre, then this is the hidden gem for you.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999). This is not hidden if you’re into foreign films, because Pedro Almodovar is one of the biggest name directors out there. It’s just that most Americans I’ve talked to haven’t watched any foreign language films at all. I’ve seen everything Almodovar has done many times. I love all them for vastly different reasons, but I’ve picked Todo Sobre Mi Madre, because I think it is less well-known than Volver, but still possible to find.

As with most Almodovar films, it is hard to say there is a “story.” Instead, it covers a huge number of issues with a vast number of characters weaving in and out of each other’s lives. The kernel story-line is essentially a retelling of the classic film All About Eve (hence the title of the movie: All About My Mother). I highly recommend being familiar with that first if you watch this.

The cinematography is stunning, and there is an air of unrealness to the hyper-real plot/subject matter just by the magic quality of the vibrant shots and the consistent overt symbolism strewn throughout. The movie tackles everything from sexuality, identity, and AIDS, to mother-son relationships, acting, and drug use.

One consistent thing with Almodovar is that all of the relationships between the characters are very fluid. People run into trouble when they try to peg labels on the characters, and it is fascinating because we don’t tend to think of how we relate to others in terms of some label. Almodovar really wants people to think about this issue and move past the cliche relationships you’d find in more mainstream movies.

This movie is extremely broad in scope, yet doesn’t spread itself too thin. It has its topics and examines them thoroughly. Despite being such demanding topics, the film always stays thoroughly entertaining. This is one of those movies that I could probably see 100 times and not get bored with it. Everything is done with such attention to detail. This is a must-see intro to Almodovar and a hidden gem for most people within the US.