Warning, spoilers for mother! to follow.
Love is sacrifice. When you really, truly love someone, you don’t just adore them for who they are, but also, for their potential – for what you know they could be. You strive to give everything in your power to that person – anything that would somehow aid them in their quest to ascend to a higher level, to be the best version of themselves – even, sadly, sometimes if that means losing part of yourself in the attempt to nurture your partner’s growth. I didn’t quite understand that level of devotion at the tender age of seven when my father gifted me Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, but after he died, in the rough years that followed, I watched my mother struggle to raise me on her own, to hold onto our house and her job and pay bills and skip lunches so that I didn’t have to skip lunches – and one day it dawned on me. Love isn’t just about caring for a person – it’s an active thing, a strategic dance strummed out in careful steps so as to enrich someone else’s life, simply because you find joy in their jubilation. Love is sacrifice, and that’s why Darren Aronofsky took to Twitter to recommend a children’s book to fans before they ventured out to the nearest movie theater to see his new R-rated film. That’s why, shockingly enough, Aronofsky’s mother! pairs best with Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
Shel Silverstein is known for having a knack for writing multilayered stories which entertain children while also appealing on a higher intellectual level to adults, and The Giving Tree is no exception. On one hand, it’s a sweet little anecdote for kids about a talking tree that comes alive and plays pretend with a little boy, providing leaves for his king’s crown and shade for his sleepy afternoon naps. On the other hand, it’s a symbolic representation of pure love, in particular, parenthood, and the level of sacrifice that comes with such an unwavering allegiance to another person. At first, the boy is happy playing kind of the forest and climbing the tree’s trunk and swinging from her branches, but as time goes on, he grows older and begins to want new and different things, like a girlfriend, kids of his own, a home, and a way out. He begins to spend more and more time away from the tree, leaving her alone in the forest where she would wait patiently for his sporadic returns. Now, he only comes back when he wants something. The tree happily offers up every part of herself that she can to the boy – her apples for him to sell in the city, her branches for him to build a house, her trunk for him to carve a small boat to sail away in. She gives away every part of herself until there’s nothing left but a lonely stump in the woods. All she wants in return is a little visit every now and then.
Jennifer Lawrence’s character in mother! is essentially the physical embodiment of the tree from Shel Silverstein’s story. All we really know about her is that she loves her husband (Javier Bardem) and she is willing to give every last part of herself up to him, both literally and figuratively, just to bring a smile to his face. A twitching pen to his struggling writer’s hand. To breathe life into his cold, charred heart.
When we meet Lawrence’s character, who is never given a name, the first thing we learn about her – and the only thing we continue to learn about her – is how much she loves her husband. Her lover lost everything in a fire, watched as his home went down in flames, along with everything he cherished burned to a cinder inside of it. But then, he met her, The Inspiration, and she came, and she began making repairs and raising sinks and painting walls and giving Him back the home he once knew. She brought this house back to life, and Him as well. All she wants for all of her loyalty is a little time spent with her lover every now and then. Instead, she gets unexpected company.
One night, a strange old man knocks at their front door. He says he’s a doctor and claims to have lost his way, but it’s not long before it’s revealed that he’s actually one of the poet’s rabid fans – and he’s not alone. Soon, the doctor’s wife appears, and then his sons barge in too, then their friends, then more friends, and more and more people spill in like bees buzzing in a hive until the house pulsates with claustrophobic movement and a cacophony of squawking screeches out from every corner. It seems that the more people Lawrence tries to get rid of, the more shove their way in, and the more love she gives to her husband, the more of her incendiary essence he gives away to strangers. She begs to her husband to make the strangers leave, but whereas she feels frightened by their erratic behavior, he seems to fully come alive when suffocated by myriad desperate souls shrieking for his attention. He can’t get enough of their needy praise, and he can’t help but take all that his lady has given him and throw it to the wolves, even if they rip whatever he hands them to shreds.
At one point in the film, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character tells Lawrence about how fruitless and exhausting being a parent can be, saying “You give and you give but it’s never enough”. Pfeiffer tells Lawrence that she could never fully comprehend this notion because she’s not a parent, but what Pfeiffer fails to realize is Lawrence knows this thankless love all too well – she may not be a mother to a child (at least not yet), but this kind spirit is the ultimate caregiver to her husband, a man who she cherishes with every ounce of her soul, and a man who greedily takes and takes every bit of love and inspiration that Lawrence has offered up until there’s nothing left but a hollowed out shell.
Symbolically, one could argue that Lawrence’s character, who seems to share an intimate relationship with the wood paneled house she repairs, actually represents Mother Earth, while her lover represents God, and all of the hyper individuals who carelessly sprint and stomp and plunder their way through their home and wreak havoc represent the people of Earth, and the chaos and destruction that they all inevitably unleash upon the planet they’re slowly destroying. However, while this may be true on a grand scale, on a smaller, more intimate level, mother! is just trying to say the same thing Shel Silverstein illustrated back in the day with The Giving Tree – that love is sacrifice, and only those who have truly loved another with their whole heart can understand and appreciate the limitless wonder and horrific degradation that comes with true love. Love will destroy us in the end, but it’s worth every painful tear in our hearts just to have experienced such a profound connection to another soul. Without love to give us hope, we’re left lost, choking on the ashes of what’s come before, and doomed to live in a static cycle of false fulfillment and meaningless exchanges, forever searching for something we’ll never find.