Mother! explained: What on earth is that yellow potion and who are Domhnall and Brian Gleeson?
This article entirely ruins Mother!, revealing plot points, the metaphors at work, and what it all actually means. Reading it prior to seeing the film would be silly, so don’t do it.
After months of theories and speculation, the top secret horror movie Mother! has finally arrived in cinemas, revealing that much of what we thought we knew about the film has been slightly incorrect. And that the film’s premise was also somewhat blindly in front of us this whole time.
Possibly realising that they’d otherwise have nothing to talk about, director Darren Aronofsky and star Jennifer Lawrence have been a bit more forthcoming about the film’s plot in recent weeks, Lawrence in particular laying out the film’s entire premise in conversation with The Telegraph.
Yes, it's all about the Bible
“It depicts the rape and torment of Mother Earth,” she said. “It’s not for everybody. It’s a hard film to watch. But it’s important for people to understand the allegory we intended. That they know I represent Mother Earth, Javier, whose character is a poet, represents a form of God, a creator; Michelle Pfeiffer is an Eve to Ed Harris’s Adam, there’s Cain and Abel and the setting sometimes resembles the Garden of Eden.
“For Darren to take these massive biblical themes and condense them into a narrative about a house and a couple I think is just brilliant. I have never heard of anything like it.”
Aronofsky himself has also explained his process of making the film, and just why he decided to tackle such broad themes in the guise of a traditional horror movie.
“It came out of living on this planet and sort of seeing what’s happening around us and not being able to do anything,” Aronofsky told Variety. “I just had a lot of rage and anger, and I wanted to channel it into one emotion, into one feeling. In five days I wrote the first version of the script… It just sort of poured out of me.”
He elaborated further on the film’s biblical premise during a Reddit AMA, revealing that “finding the structure was the great breakthrough that allowed me to write this screenplay so quickly. When trying to think about Mother Earth’s relationship to people, I decided to turn to the stories of the Bible as a way of describing a version of people’s story on earth.”
Thankfully, Mother! isn’t so allegorical that it becomes unwatchable. It has a very clear beginning, middle and end, and a final act that quite obviously explains itself. But there are also story elements likely to confuse audience members not particularly well-versed in the Bible, meaning a handy guide will probably be helpful.
With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about Mother!... for after you’ve actually watched the thing.
In hindsight, what’s with that title?
As Darren Aronofsky explained in August, the shrieky title “reflects the spirit of the film. The film kind of has an exclamation point; at the end of it, there’s a big exclamation point. So I think the title was just a bit better that way.”
But what’s with the lower-case formatting used through much of the film’s promotional materials? While some wrote it off as just a weird stylistic flourish, it’s actually a pretty big deal. Aronofsky revealed during his Reddit AMA that the film’s end credits explain his reasoning.
“To find out why there's a lowercase ‘m’, read the credits and look for the letter that isn't capitalised,” he wrote. “Ask yourself what’s another name for this character?”
For those of you willing to hang around for the final cast list to appear, you’ll notice that all of the film’s characters are written in lower-case apart from Javier Bardem, who is listed as playing “Him”. Which brings us to…
Mother! is an allegory for the Book of Genesis
Long story short, Jennifer Lawrence’s “Mother” is Mother Nature herself, created by Javier Bardem’s God, with their uninvited guests leading to a sort of hell-on-earth scenario that directly parallels the Book of Genesis. You see, God’s creations have a tendency to go wild, leading him to continuously wash away his work and start anew over and over until things run more smoothly.
Bardem’s character is also obsessed with a mysterious crystal that he keeps in his office, which nobody is allowed to touch, and often takes advantage of Lawrence’s kindly nature. But she takes it in her stride, insisting that her husband is a very special sort of genius and needs time and space to create his next work.
Who are Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer playing?
Inspiration appears to strike with the arrival of Ed Harris, who plays the film’s allegorical Adam. Harris, who is dying, goes away to shower. We briefly catch a glimpse of a scar across Harris’s rib. The following day, Michelle Pfeiffer arrives as the movie’s version of Eve, presumably made from Harris’s (or Adam’s) rib overnight. She is particularly drawn to Bardem’s crystal, despite Lawrence repeatedly telling her not to touch it.
Faster than you can say “forbidden fruit”, Pfeiffer has picked up the crystal and accidentally dropped it on the ground, sending Lawrence’s happy home into disarray.
And who are Domhnall and Brian Gleeson?
We then meet the couple’s sons, played by real-life siblings Domhnall and Brian Gleeson. Inspired by Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, the pair are squabbling over their father’s apparent betrayal. Exactly like their biblical counterparts, a fight ensues, culminating in Domhnall beating his brother to death before fleeing.
What does the film’s second act represent?
Nine months later, Lawrence is heavily pregnant, and Bardem is overjoyed after authoring a wildly successful work that has led to public hysteria. As the couple prepare for a quiet dinner, hundreds of Bardem’s fans arrive desperate for his love and praising of his work. But that devotion to Bardem’s words eventually turns violent. Echoing the Fall of Man, the house descends into madness and disobedience.
And in scenes that give slight credence to an otherwise hysterical review from the National Review, which advised that “pregnant women, those with nervous constitutions or heart conditions, and anyone who happens to be burdened with good taste” should stay far away from Mother!, Lawrence goes into labor.
Lawrence’s newborn son is an obvious Jesus allegory, while the scenes that follow, in which the baby is taken from her and passed through the crowd, parallel the Passion – Jesus’s fateful journey to his eventual crucifixion. The baby is accidentally killed, and Lawrence is soon horrified to discover that not only has her son died, but that the mob has eaten him – a direct parallel to bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ.
Devastated, Lawrence’s choices in light of her son’s death leads to Mother!’s version of the biblical great flood, which reverts Earth to its pre-creation state. The home is destroyed and the followers killed, leaving nothing but Bardem and a horrifically burned Lawrence remaining.
“I was never enough for you,” she tells Bardem, who proceeds to remove her heart, which has crystallised into the same object destroyed earlier in the film and which magically reverts the home back to what it once was. Whether the crystal itself has any biblical parallel remains somewhat unclear.
At the very end of the film, an entirely different woman has assumed Lawrence’s place as the latest version of Mother Nature. She wakes up in the exact same way as Lawrence did at the start of the film, with Bardem presumably hoping that this time things will be different.
How did the poster clues add up in the end?
While we all pondering what Mother! was actually about, fans began scouring the film’s teaser posters for clues. The first teaser poster, illustrated by artist James Jean, depicted Lawrence’s character ripping her own heart out of her chest, which turns out to be a major plot point in the film itself.
As for her surroundings in the poster, it feels almost silly that we hadn’t twigged sooner that she’s standing in what looks like the Garden of Eden. There’s also a frog, which appears briefly in the film and biblically represent “unclean spirits in the sight of God.”
Then there’s the mystery lighter, which also appears on the film’s second illustrated poster, and which reappears throughout the film and is the key to Lawrence’s eventual emancipation in the film.
Embedded on the lighter is a strange symbol, which has since been identified as a Wendehorn. According to an old Geocities site, the ancient rune represents “the cooperation between nature’s eternal laws, working in effect and in accordance with each other.”
The site continues, “An example is Man and Woman, Male and Female – two opposites that unite in accordance with nature’s eternal laws and compliment each other to effect change – love, birth, sex (the central core of the lifeline and lifeforce of the folk), creativity. Whilst these opposites unite in sacred unity they are not perfect and spark change – chaos spawned from order and visa versa.”
As for the illustrated poster of Bardem, the strange orb he’s holding is likely the earth. Him being God and all. There also appears to be a baby reflected in the orb, which also makes sense in light of the film itself.
The film’s third poster, a direct lift of the iconic poster for Rosemary’s Baby, also seems to have been a red herring all along. While Lawrence is indeed heavily pregnant in the second half of the film, she’s not carrying Satan, and while it’s arguable that Bardem’s following is a cult, it’s certainly not as traditionally cinematic as the sinister geriatrics in Rosemary’s Baby.
But because Mother! eventually descends into insanity, it’s quite understandable that Paramount took the step of hinging much of its promotion on the film’s early scenes, which at first indicate a sinister home invasion thriller rather than a maddening biblical allegory.
What was with that yellow potion?
Throughout the film Lawrence is seen pouring a yellow powder into her water, which makes the water come alive with a magical CGI glow. It’s the one aspect of Mother! that is never properly explained, though The Daily Beast has suggested it could be a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story The Yellow Wallpaper.
The story finds a young woman driven slowly mad due to the submission insisted upon her by her husband, and Lawrence’s mystery elixir, which helps her recover from random bursts of pain, could be a subtle reference to it.
Was that really Kristen Wiig?
Finally – yes, Kristen Wiig is in Mother! It’s a small role, representing a biblical “herald” (someone who makes public proclamation), who Aronofsky comedically depicts as a literary publicist. She also ends up being caught in the film’s final-act madness, too, so if you’ve ever wanted to see Kristen Wiig blow somebody’s head off, Mother! is the movie for you.