When Mother! was released in 2017, it was the subject of feverish debate and relentless criticism. Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror film was divisive mainly due to its brutal violence, all of which was inflicted mercilessly upon its female protagonist played by Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence stars as the nameless lead known only as Mother in the film, and the role was a singular and stark departure from the tough, scrappy women and action heroines that comprise much of her filmography. Lawrence, known for her outspoken personality and deadpan humor, left every trace of her persona, both on and offscreen, behind to embody a woman far removed from herself and her iconic catalog of characters. Understandably, Lawrence has stated she would not put herself through such a physically and emotionally taxing role again, but her work in this film should be remembered as one of the best performances of her career.
When Lawrence First Enters Frame as Mother, the recognizable Movie Star Quickly Disappears
With a cascading braid of long, ash-blonde hair and a white slip dress, Mother is a picture of purity and traditional femininity. She drifts around her idyllic country home looking for her husband, a prolific poet played by Javier Bardem. While there are countless allegories ascribed to the film, the most prominent, and the one at the forefront of Aronofsky and Lawrence’s minds, was the relation between Mother Nature and God in the wake of climate change and humanity’s destructive nature, with Lawrence representing Mother Nature and Bardem representing God. The home in which they reside is a character in itself, representing the environment that Mother Nature seeks to protect. Lawrence depicts a sincere adoration and fervent protectiveness over the home, which Mother has restored and refurbished herself in the wake of a mysterious fire. Throughout the film, her endlessly nurturing, maternal presence is increasingly challenged by her husband and his endless train of “guests,” who turn out to be his fanatic followers.
When the first guest arrives, a stranger who claims he thought this was a bed and breakfast (Ed Harris), Lawrence must convey her conflicting emotions with often little to no dialogue. With her skeptical gaze, she makes it clear that she wants him to leave, but she doesn’t wish to express this verbally and go against her husband’s wishes. As the stranger makes himself at home and the poet obliges him, Mother looks to her husband, searching his eyes for a sign that he sees the absurdity of the situation. Instead, he insists the stranger stay the night, to which the stranger asks Mother if that’s okay with her. Her eyes dart between Bardem and Harris in sheer panic and confusion, but she musters her approval with a smile. Because Mother is not yet comfortable voicing her concerns, Lawrence impressively conveys her utter disbelief and frustration with only her gaze.
As More Characters Arrive, Mother Nears Her Breaking Point
The arrival of the strange man’s wife pushes Mother further to her breaking point while allowing Lawrence to reveal more of the character’s complexities. Played with a seductive heir of danger by Michelle Pfeiffer, his wife pries into Mother’s sex life, questions why they don’t have children, and disrespects her home, breaking a pot and getting it on with her husband on the couch. Lawrence displays clear discomfort and shock with the woman’s overt sexuality, as it so starkly contrasts her own reserved, puritanical image. She raises Mother’s softspoken voice for the first time when she sees the woman attempt to go into the poet’s study, a place she had already firmly told her was off limits. Finally, she tells the stranger and his wife that they need to leave, a pivotal moment of agency that Lawrence depicts with a measured unease, as this firmness goes against her character’s kind and giving nature.
The strangers’ sons show up, leading to a climactic dispute over the family will that results in a murder on their living room floor as Mother cries in horror. Things further descend into madness as the poet says they are having the funeral at their home because they have nowhere else to go, and Mother, utterly perplexed, still obliges and comes downstairs. Things escalate quickly, with dozens of strangers arriving and showing no regard for the home she has worked so hard to create. After countless times telling two strangers to stop sitting on the sink and them not listening, the sink breaks, causing the walls to cave in and pipes to burst, spewing water everywhere. This moment is a pivotal catalyst for Mother’s eventual breaking point, as it marks the first major collapse of the home. Upon the sink breaking, Lawrence screams with exasperation, pleading for everyone to leave her home. Her husband comes to their defense, saying these people needed a place to celebrate life after such a tragic loss. She responds “what about what I needed?”, and her desperation to be heard is agonizingly palpable.
The Film’s Infamous Final Act
The film’s infamous final act, so taxing on Lawrence that she tore her diaphragm in the process, is what spurred much of the divisive reactions to the film. The poet has a launch party for his new book that soon descends into a warzone, his cult-like followers erupting into a state of religious frenzy and ransacking the home. Amid the chaos and violence, Mother must give birth to their new son alone, screaming with agony and visceral intensity. After giving birth, her husband takes the baby from her to show his followers, resulting in a tragic, jaw-dropping death. Lawrence’s screams intensify, now fueled with fiery, unrelenting rage. The sole thing she had left, her newborn son, has been taken away, and Mother transforms into a near demonic state of rage as she screams and stabs everyone around her. In this moment, Lawrence must go to a place of unspeakable darkness, and it’s simultaneously horrifying and harrowingly powerful to behold.
The film’s final moments are focused on Lawrence’s last stage of transformation, now a shell of the woman she was at the film’s introduction. Everything has been taken from her, and she has been broken down by relentless trauma, violence, and tragedy. She tells her husband she has nothing left to give him and wishes to die, but he demands one last thing: her heart. On the surface, Mother embodies a victim of a horribly toxic relationship, but in its rich allegorical subtext, her tragic undoing reflects the horrors that have been unleashed on Mother Earth. While she didn’t receive the critical acclaim and shiny trophies she has received for other roles, Lawrence’s jaw-dropping and nuanced turn as Mother should be remembered as one of her most captivating performances to date.