The broad strokes: Javier Bardem plays an acclaimed poet (listed in the credits as “Him”) facing writer’s block, and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence, “mother”) is a literal homemaker who has dedicated herself to her husband and to lovingly restoring his isolated, dreamy farmhouse that had been previously destroyed. A stranger (Ed Harris, “man”) shows up, soon followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, “woman”). The poet is energized by their presence, ignoring the protestations and needs of his wife.
But it’s not just a home-invasion horror flick. When asked if there’s a wrong way to interpret the film, Aronofsky told the HuffPost, “Anyone who thinks that it’s darkness for darkness’s sake is a wrong interpretation. They’re not really thinking. There’s no way we’re condoning violence in this film.
“We always knew there were several metaphorical strains going through it,” he added.
Lawrence told Jimmy Fallon that when asked what the movie’s about, “I don’t even know what to tell people. I’ve gone between not saying anything and just telling everybody everything.”
So, here’s our attempt at navigating some of those possible hidden meanings:
An environmental cautionary tale
The house in the film “represents Earth,” Lawrence blurted to Fallon, who chastised her for giving away plot points. “I feel like the metaphors are so good, and people don’t know!” she continued.
The people who flock to the house are careless. They go into rooms and places they are not welcome. They ignore mother’s warnings about how to treat the home — don’t even recognize who she is, let alone respect her authority — and make a big mess. There are even people who think they are helping her out by painting the walls and ceilings.
Later, when the film reaches its fever pitch, people are literally tearing the house apart and running off with pieces. When mother asks why they are doing this, one person responds: to show that he was there. Soon, there are bombs going off, fires set. At her breaking point, mother destroys the home and (nearly) everyone in it.
“I really wanted to make this kind of allegory about Mother Nature and our place and our connection to our home,” Aronofsky told the New York Times, adding he cast Lawrence “as that spirit.”
The director then brought up Susan Griffin’s 1978 book “Women and Nature” as a major influence on the film, suggesting that the film represents Mother Earth, and the destruction of Lawrence’s character “mother” and the home symbolizes how people treat the environment. “I think there is absolutely a connection,” he said of how both women and the environment are treated. “America is schizophrenic. We go from backing the Paris climate [accord] to eight months later pulling out. It’s tragic, but in many ways, we’ve revealed who the enemy is and now we can go attack it.”
A biblical allegory
Aronofsky has said, in addition to writing a story about Mother Nature, he wanted “to tell the story of humanity, the stories of the Bible.”
Plenty in the film hints at Biblical references. A sink bursts, unleashing a flood (the Great Flood, maybe?). The crystal that Bardem’s character treasures — which Harris’s and Pfeiffer’s characters, told to stay away from, ultimately break — could be a “forbidden fruit” of sorts.
Harris and Pfeiffer, who play “man” and “woman,” could be stand-ins for Adam and Eve. We see man bent over, sick, with a wound on the side of his back — could that be the remnant of a rib being removed, to make an Eve? The next day, woman knocks on the door, and Lawrence’s character is confused, asking the poet: “Did you know he had a wife?” He looks bewildered. “No.”
Not only that, but this man and woman (as their characters are referred to in the credits) have two sons who arrive, bickering about inheritance. In a fit of jealousy and rage, the older son kills the younger — an allusion to Adam and Eve’s sons, and how Cain killed Abel. In the movie, the elder son disappeared after the murder, returns to the house but leaves again, wandering.
Lawrence’s character, “mother,” could also represent Mary, playing opposite of “Him,” Bardem’s character, God. Together they have a baby. “I’m his father,” Bardem’s character says in one pivotal scene. “I’m his mother!” responds Lawrence’s character, who wants the people gone, who doesn’t want to share her baby with them — perhaps a Mary who doesn’t want her son sacrificed?
But — and if you’ve seen the movie, you know this is coming — the baby is eventually taken by the father, given to the people and is killed and consumed. (Communion? Who knows?) The mother loses it, and as the people beat her, Bardem’s character comes to her aid. He weeps with her, but also insists they must forgive the people for what they’ve done. He constantly shows immediate forgiveness — along with an unending desire to be loved and adored.
Eventually, the mother unleashes hellfire, blowing everything up. Only Bardem’s character remains unscathed, and creation begins anew, thanks to her final sacrifice.
An exploration of the male artist
The most obvious story here is that of a male artist whose ego cannot be satiated, who just takes and takes and takes from a female muse — all in service of his creation.
We see a much older, lauded genius of an artist with a younger, beautiful partner, who serves as a muse. She’s also a creator in her own right; she “breathes life” into the house, Bardem’s character says. And then later, her belly grows with her own creation, a baby. Some viewers who watch Lawrence act this out on screen can’t help but also think of Aronofsky’s own romantic history; the 48-year-old celebrated director began dating his 27-year-old star after making “Mother!”
Once Bardem’s “Him” gets a taste of fandom, it fuels him. And cannot turn away the adoring masses, even when they start to destroy his home and harm his wife. Even at their worst moment, he refuses to send them away and exhorts forgiveness for their misdeeds.
Bardem, in an interview with E!, said that one reading of the film is that it “shows the destruction of creativity — one person, in the name of creativity, is able to destroy everything he has because he has given more priority to what he wants to create than what really exists.”
“You never loved me,” Lawrence’s character tells him. “You just loved how I loved you.”
A super dark version of “The Giving Tree”
Aronofsky wrote on Reddit that one of biggest inspirations while writing this film was Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”
The 1964 children’s book tells the story of a tree that sacrifices everything, even herself, out of her love for a boy. That boy grows old and continues to just take, take, take. It’s one of the most divisive children’s books, as divergent interpretations have caused it to be beloved by some, derided by others. Is it a tale that upholds the beauty and happiness that comes with unconditional sacrifice and generosity? Or the display of a very unhealthy relationship, and what happens when you give all of yourself to another?
Aronofsky singled out one page in particular as having a connection to his movie: