Making ‘Mother!,’ the Year’s Most Divisive Film


The dark lord materialized moments later. It’s not an ill-fitting nickname, at least cinematically. On screen Mr. Aronofsky has conjured up all manner of ghoulish misbehavior and grotesqueries in “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan.” “Mother!,” an ambitious parable hidden in a horror flick, tops them easily. What starts as a home invasion-psychological thriller ends in flaming nightmare surrealism, stuffed with themes that divided, and mystified, critics.

“‘Mother!’ will likely be 2017’s most hated movie,” declared the Verge, while others called it “brilliant” and “an unparalleled achievement.” “It’s a hoot!” A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times.

With a reported $30 million budget and an artistic sensibility usually reserved for the indie crowd, it’s a wild gamble as a major release for its studio, Paramount, especially on the heels of “It,” Warner Bros.’s more traditional, and decipherable, horror blockbuster. Even with the benefit of two Oscar winners in a usually surefire genre, and the frisson of a romance between the director and the leading lady, “Mother!” underperformed its modest box office estimates after opening Sept. 15. But if it alienates mass audiences, it could also be the slow-burn conversation piece of the year, with high-profile defenders including Anthony Bourdain, the “Star Wars” director Rian Johnson and Chris Rock.

On the surface, it’s about a couple, Ms. Lawrence and Javier Bardem, in a rambling, secluded Victorian house. He’s a poet, with one major hit but troubled by writer’s block; she is renovating their home, forever tidying up. Their placid life is dismantled by hordes of uninvited guests who won’t leave. All the symbolism — packed like a Russian nesting doll, with religious iconography, celebrity culture and military-industrial-state overtones — is in service of one grander idea, the allegory that moved Mr. Aronofsky to write the script in an uncharacteristically prolific five-day stretch. “I just pounded through it, kind of like a fever dream,” he said.

But the allegory seems to have eluded many viewers, and Mr. Aronofsky and Ms. Lawrence disagreed about how much to reveal. “He wants people to go in blind,” she said, which she felt was a shame. “You’re going to miss all of the detail and all of the brilliance behind the whole movie,” she said. “My advice is to understand the allegory.”

Mr. Aronofsky favored an unsuspecting audience, the better to enable interpretations, or astonish. But, he said, looking at his girlfriend across the conference table, “She can do whatever she wants. She’s a genius marketer and clearly doesn’t need any career advice from anyone, and knows how to sell a movie.”

Ms. Lawrence: “Are you being sarcastic?”

He wasn’t, and so, let’s follow her lead. Thematic spoilers ahead, but rest assured that even if you absorb them, the movie will throw curveballs. “Mother!” is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem), whose poetic hit has the weight of the Old Testament: hence all the visitors clamoring for a piece of Him, as his character is called. The house represents our planet. (Walking the wooden floorboards in bare feet is what finally got the part to click, Ms. Lawrence said.) The movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.

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Jennifer Lawrence said the audience needs to understand that it’s an allegory for climate change: “It’s a hard movie to watch. I’ve watched it and I was like, my brothers can’t see this.”

Credit
Markian Lozowchuk for The New York Times

The action takes place on the biblical sixth day (the film’s original title was “Day Six,” she said) and follows that timeline. “You have the creation of people, you have the creation of religion itself, people reading the same writing and arguing over its meaning, false idols,” Ms. Lawrence said. She got the religious references immediately. “I was a Bible nerd — Bible study every Sunday,” she said, adding an expletive.

Mr. Aronofsky, an environmentalist who’s active with the Sierra Club, pitched her the concept, which she liked, yet she was still taken aback by the full vision in the script, which wreaks unyielding, gruesome havoc on her character. “When I first read it,” she said, “I didn’t even want it in my house. I thought it was evil, almost.”

It drew her because she’d never encountered anything like it. “What I’ve always loved about Darren is, he’s unapologetic and he’s bold,” she said, adding: “I agreed with the film’s message wholeheartedly. It’s an assault, and it needs to be.”

Alternative interpretations abound, though, including Mr. Bardem’s. He acknowledged the environmental symbolism, but said that for him, the idea that resonated the most was what he called “the birth of a religion as a cult,” which divides more than it unites. Playing God was a stretch, he said. “I couldn’t relate, humanly speaking,” he said. “But every time I went back to that allegory, I found my wisdom.”

Other views lean on the relationship between the older, brilliant but narcissistic artist and his adoring, if unfulfilled, gorgeous young partner. Mr. Bardem is 48, the same as Mr. Aronofsky; Ms. Lawrence is 27. Mr. Aronofsky bristled at the suggestion that the screen dynamic might be perceived as mirroring that of auteur and megastar in real life. “How could it? Our relationship didn’t start until after the film happened,” he said. “You know, we just had a great time together, and that’s it.”

Ms. Lawrence laughed. “Can’t you tell from the movie?”

As a couple, they can seem mismatched, Mr. Aronofsky the buttoned-up cineaste to her expressive exuberance. It seems about right that he wanted to be tight-lipped about the movie and she didn’t: little is off-limits with Ms. Lawrence. Sitting in the anodyne conference room before he arrived, talk turned to motherhood. “My grandma went through early menopause, my mom went through early menopause,” she said. “I handle stress like a — like a hummingbird, maybe? I’ll be like, 35, by the time I start drying up. And that’s on the record. I want that to be a pull quote. I’m no Mother Earth! Drying up as we speak!”

Later, out of her earshot, Mr. Aronofsky said: “It’s always fun to be in a room with Jen. She’s hilarious and real and truthful.”

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