Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Category: 2017 films

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)


Since its publication in 1953, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has become a staple of American literature courses. Often read alongside the works of authors such as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, the story is thought to be emblematic of “Southern Gothic” literature, a subgenre in which mysterious and even macabre elements are used to explore various social issues, particularly those associated with the American South (poverty, racism, religion, etc.). O’Connor’s place in this genre is often associated with her development of “grotesque” characters — that is, characters who simultaneously elicit disgust and empathy. These figures may be sinful, but they are not, sensu stricto, evil; they are disfigured, wounded. O’Connor ties this type of characterization to her Southern-cum-Catholic background: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” centers on a banally dysfunctional Georgia family en route to Florida for a summer vacation. After a series of misadventures, they get lost somewhere east of Macon, near the ominously named Toomsboro. A freak accident occurs, and their car plunges into a ditch. Confused and irritated, but not mortally wounded, the family flags an oncoming vehicle for help. Three armed men get out, and the family’s matriarch — a jejune and self-centered woman known only as the Grandmother — identifies them as a band of fugitives led by The Misfit, a notorious murderer. Under duress, the Grandmother pleads with The Misfit for her life: “She found herself saying, ‘Jesus, Jesus,’ … but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.” The Misfit begins to contemplate Jesus and the possibility of his raising the dead: “‘I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t [raise the dead]…I wish I had of been there … If I had of been there I would of known…and I wouldn’t be like I am now.'” Suddenly, as if receiving a revelation, the Grandmother intuits The Misfit’s pain and her own peculiar relation to it. She sympathetically places her hand on The Misfit’s shoulder, but he recoils and shoots her three times. “‘She would of been a good woman,'” The Misfit reflects, “‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'”

In an opening scene of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, in an Oscar-winning performance) visits a local advertising agency, hoping to lease the eponymous billboards on the outskirts of town. Business is slow, and so Mildred finds the agency’s manager Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) in a quiet moment — his feet propped on his desk, book in hand.


The book is O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” McDonagh’s camera lingers on it just long to enough to let the viewer take note. In turn, he suggests that the following story is an exercise in O’Connor-like grotesquerie — a film, in other words, that will offer signs of grace but in the midst of human fallenness.

To be sure, Mildred understands the brokenness of humanity all too well. Her husband left her for a younger woman, further complicating an already precarious domestic life. Then things went from bad to (impossibly) worse: her daughter was raped and murdered in a crime that remains unsolved. Sensing apathy from the local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), she decides to put pressure on the authorities by, quite literally, advertising her pain on a trio of billboards:


Many of the residents of Ebbing (a fictional town represented by Sylva, North Carolina) are offended by Mildred’s signs, not only because of their brazenness, but also because they imply that Willoughby has been negligent. A pillar of the community, Willoughby has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and many resent that Mildred refuses to allow him to spend his final weeks in peace. No one is angrier at Mildred than Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who also won an Oscar for his role), an officer in the Ebbing PD whose childlike admiration for Willoughby is matched only by his enmity toward everyone else. So, when Willoughby commits suicide, Dixon’s worst tendencies come to the fore. He drinks heavily and, in a scene with Scorsese-like flair, tosses Welby from a second-story window. Dismissed from the force, Dixon appears to be a lost cause, but a series of unexpected events sets him on a different path — one that, as he sees it, would have met Willoughby’s approval. He reconciles with Mildred, and the two vow to become vigilantes on behalf of abused women.

It is easy to see, then, how Three Billboards could be seen as an example of grotesque cinema. As in O’Connor’s stories, the film does not feature a classic protagonist — a savior who is confident, noble, and pure. Rather, its three main characters are flawed in significant ways. Willoughby has the mien of a hero but is terrified of his own mortality. Dixon is a goon and a racist. And though Mildred is billed as the lead character, her bitterness has twisted her into an icon of guerrilla warfare:


On the other hand, McDonagh manages to elicit empathy for each of these figures too. Willoughby is a good man cut down in his prime. Dixon belongs to the “working poor,” meagerly educated and still living at home — with his xenophobic and spiteful mother, no less. And Mildred’s suffering goes without saying. The upshot is an ambiguous, even erratic film.

Perhaps that is why, awards aside, Three Billboards has garnered more than a little criticism. One commentator has accused McDonagh of naïvely subverting the film’s principal aim, namely, the elevation of a strong female lead character: “Three Billboards hasn’t just stripped Mildred of her sympathy, but her humanity as well. Her unhinged rage — expressions of which are framed as invitations to spout you-go-girl-isms at the screen — makes her look silly instead, and the righteousness of her cause suffers as a result.” Tim Parks, writing in The New Yorker, excoriates McDonagh for dangling “caricatures, conflict, and political correctness” as Oscar-bait:

Below the surface of this narrative, a deeper conflict is being waged: the fight of the liberal intelligentsia against the redneck, racist Trump voters of Missouri. (Or, perhaps, against the Brexit folk of northern England; where this story is set is merely a matter of commercial opportunity.) All of the sophistication of modern cinema, the extraordinary competence of modern acting and modern photography, is brought to bear on exposing the vulgarity of the conservative Midwestern provinces. It is not a fair fight. The seductive power of these images, and the powerful sense of reality they convey, covers up a thousand cheap coincidences and blatant manipulations of the story line.

Such reviews of Three Billboards have become so common — from both sides of the political divide — that Wesley Morris has grown exasperated, not just with the film itself, but also with the whole Oscar season: “The movie isn’t an explicit work of politics, but it reaches something political in certain people in the same way it touches something emotional in others. And yet in arguing about this movie what I don’t want, but where I’m afraid we are — with lots of film this time every year — is in another fight over a movie’s politics that manages to leave the movie itself behind. Whose fault is that? We’ve been seduced and bullied into thinking of the awards season as a process of politics.”

The claim that Three Billboards is mostly interested in politics is an important one, because it suggests how McDonagh’s art ultimately differs from O’Connor’s. In a September 1955 letter, O’Connor laments that “[p]olicy and politics generally go contrary to principle,” whereas she identifies herself with the “mystical body” of the Church — an institution that names deviations from principle (including ecclesial deviations) as “sin.”  Is this, then, what differentiates “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” from Three Billboards — that the former concerns a fallenness that transcends finite human (and thus political) distinctions, while the latter reduces fallenness to precisely such distinctions? If so, this would explain why McDonagh’s use of the grotesque softens at film’s end, when Dixon’s assumption of a new political identity is treated as a Damascene conversion. Here, it seems, was the point all along. In contrast, O’Connor never loses sight of what Rowan Williams calls “the tragic within grace,” whereby the possibility of forgiveness is only glimpsed by way of “terrible moments of fatal longing” — to wit, the encounter between the Grandmother and the Misfit, in which they both desire a redemption that, alas, proves out of reach. For O’Connor, Williams adds, “grace is an excess that may make for significance or forgiveness, but needn’t.”

That this is obviously the case — that divine grace, whatever else it may be, is something that does not always overcome human sin — means that the artist owes it to herself and, indeed, to her readers to render it faithfully. This task is what Williams terms the “serious and costly dispossession of the artist in the work.” And it is on this point, finally, that McDonagh breaks from O’Connor. Three Billboards flirts with the grotesque and, to be sure, may be seen as a nod toward O’Connor’s legacy. But its humanistic-political horizon means that it never really leaves McDonagh’s hand: it offers a “message” from and about him to and for his audience. Where McDonagh pulls strings, O’Connor lets go.

The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)


The phrase “shape of water” is, of course, an oxymoron. Water is a fluid and, as such, is defined as a material with “zero shear modulus.” This means that, when a certain “stress” is applied to water, its form is subject to change. In other words, water does not have any shape per se but morphs in accordance with given external conditions and pressures. The question that Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water asks is this: is love like water? That is to say, is love irreducible to any putatively “natural” form and thus open to a variety of expressions? This is, of course, a big question, which bears significant socio-political connotations. But del Toro does not directly confront today’s cultural discussion. Instead, The Shape of Water is a fable whose moral is illustrated through fantasy.

The film is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s. It’s the time of the Cold War, and the American government is bent on exploring any and every advantage over the Soviets. With this in mind, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, in a typecast role) returns from South America with a prize — namely, a humanoid amphibious river dweller.


This creature is menacing and, at times, violent. Moreover, it is incapable of communicating in human language, using instead a peculiar series of clicks and hisses. So mysterious is it that, according to Strickland, tribal peoples worship it as a “god.” On the other hand, the creature’s face resembles that of a human being, and it seems to enjoy human music and cuisine (particularly hard-boiled eggs, in a suggestive metaphor).


A different film might have investigated the philosophical, scientific, and theological questions raised by such a being: what is it that constitutes the humanum? Where, in other words, do we draw the line between a creature that exhibits human-like qualities (as with primates, for example) and a human being per se? Is it the ability to form abstract concepts and language? To create representational art? To pray to a deity or deities?

But del Toro sidesteps these difficult problems. Instead, he pits the brutal and callous Col. Strickland, whose hatred of the creature seems to be grounded in a deviant reading of the Old Testament, against the sensitive and sweet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor in the facility in which the creature is being detained. Where Strickland sees a dangerous beast, Elisa sees an oppressed person. Elisa too cannot speak (she has been mute since childhood), and yet she has dreams and hopes. Del Toro makes it clear that her longing is chiefly sexual. After all, Elisa has a pair of caring and supportive friends, and she does not seem to lack the necessities of life. Yet, for reasons that the film fails to address, she is not in an erotic relationship. She masturbates each day before work, expressing the sexual desire otherwise suppressed in her life. In this way, she resembles her neighbor Giles, a gay artist who tries (not always successfully) to bridle his sexuality in public. Both Elisa and Giles are incomplete just to the extent that society — still betraying the vestiges of Eisenhower conservatism — dictates the form in which their erotic passion is to find articulation.

As time passes, Elisa realizes that Strickland, under orders from his commanders, expects to kill the amphibious creature. With help from Giles and others, Elisa absconds with the creature and keeps him in the bathroom of her apartment, allowing him to soak in a bath of tap water and table salt. A bond seems to develop between the two, and eventually they have sex. At the same time, Elisa realizes that he (indeed, she visually clarifies that the creature has a penis) is being hunted by the military and must be released into the ocean. This tension sets up a climactic showdown between Strickland and the two lovers.

Del Toro is celebrated as an imaginative storyteller — look no further than his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth for evidence — and The Shape of Water is indeed visually arresting. It is as if Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen shot the film with a cyanic filter, imbuing its fictional Baltimore (the movie was actually filmed in and around Toronto) with a wet, shimmering luster. Moreover, the creature himself is indelible, partly an homage to the Gill-man (below) from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), partly a recomposition of the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth:


And yet, given The Shape of Water‘s premise, much hinges on whether or not one is convinced by the relationship between the amphibian man and Elisa. Taken literally, this is not an easy sell. Yes, Elisa’s personal characteristics — alone, mute, mysterious — superficially resemble those of the creature. Still, to what extent can one say that she is truly like the amphibian man? For example, we know that she is sexually frustrated, but can the same be said for the creature? Elisa communicates her sexual desires both in action and in sign, whereas the creature gives no such indication. They do eventually have sex, but perhaps the creature was simply acting on instinct? In any case, since the creature (unlike Elisa) cannot communicate in human terms, there is no way of knowing his intentions. To be sure, Alexandre Desplat’s romantic score, not to mention the magical realism of Elisa and the amphibian man’s sex scene (she floods her bathroom with tap water), prod the viewer to accept that there is a genuine relationship between the two characters. But these flourishes are more beguiling than substantive. Since del Toro invests so little in the question of what the creature is, it is hard to know the nature of its relationship with Elisa. One simply has to accept what del Toro’s filmmaking is suggesting.

Clearly, then, The Shape of Water is best understood on the level of metaphor — something that many commentators have emphasized. The default assumption seems to be that the film represents the struggles of LGBTQ people and, indeed, is a kind of “love letter” to the gay community. GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) has designated it as “LGBTQ-related entertainment,” adding that it is a “story about the power of love, and outcasts fighting the system.” While conceding that The Shape of Water is an “unrealistic fantasy,” one blogger nevertheless associates the film with movements such as the Stonewall riots and Black Lives Matter: “Intersectional and ‘othered’ people always end up saving the world, and this time cinema. Thank you Guillermo Del Toro, for making this incredible film.” Del Toro, however, has implied that the film has just as much to do with current debates about immigration, and, as a Mexican citizen, he finds its tale personally meaningful: “I may have light skin and sort of lighter hair, but the moment I open my mouth in immigration, all that goes away. When I’m stopped many times by a cop on a traffic violation and I speak, I am immediately a Mexican. So these are things I am trying to say.”

In this way, del Toro opens the door to viewing The Shape of Water as something other than a parable about sex. Indeed, John McAteer notes that, even as the film takes a critical stance toward certain aspects of Christianity, it also draws on “Christian stories and imagery” and, perhaps unintentionally, gets “a lot of the gospel right.” After all, certain sexually explicit biblical texts — most notably the Song of Solomon, which features lines such as “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins” (Song 7:3, AKJV) — are often read as representations of God’s love for humanity. Is it possible, then, that the amphibian man, who is referred to as a “god,” symbolizes a divine other whose love redeems those who have eyes to see and ears to hear? One might press this possibility even further and wonder if del Toro’s emphasis on love’s fluidity is not a call for human beings to abandon a perverse and rigid anthropocentrism, whereby that which is other than human (including God) is laid bare by science and then tossed aside. Only if love is open to mystery, to an other that it desires but cannot circumscribe, can it be said to fulfill its deepest impulse. On this reading, del Toro’s characterization of Strickland is not opposed to Christianity per se but to what Martin Heidegger famously called “ontotheology” — a way of “framing” the world that uses God (theos) to underpin a techno-scientific focus on beings.

Such metaphysical ruminations are unlikely to appeal to those who insist on seeing The Shape of Water as a political film. But del Toro’s decision to tell the story as a fable means that it cannot be reduced to any single “statement.” For that reason, its meaning is deferred. The Shape of Water asks hot-button questions but is loath to give a determinative answer. Like the sea, billowing and frothing during a midnight storm, it presents an entrancing formlessness.

Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017)


At just 47 years of age, Christopher Nolan has become an anomaly in Hollywood — a critically-acclaimed filmmaker who also is bankable at the box office. Moreover, he has done so with a series of films that, on the surface, bear little resemblance to one another: Memento (2000) is basically low-budget noir; the Dark Knight (2008) belongs to the superhero genre; Inception (2010) plumbs the human unconscious; Interstellar (2014, which I reviewed) is sci-fi for armchair physicists. There is, then, a protean quality to Nolan’s output, which makes him an enigmatic figure among contemporary directors. Unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, it is hard to say what a “Nolan film” is like. His works tend to experiment with Weltanschauungen as much as genre and style. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Nolan followed Interstellar, a space opera set in the future, with Dunkirk, a war film set in the past.

Dunkirk is based on the Dunkirk evacuation (codenamed Operation Dynamo) of 1940. Tomes have been written on this event, its impact on World War II, and its role in shaping Britain’s identity, but Nolan condenses this abundant material into a taut, 106-minute film. The decision to prioritize cinematic intensity over historical contextualization has been met with controversy, and it is fair to say that Dunkirk teaches us next to nothing about the persons behind the event. After all, Tom Hardy’s character is known as “Farrier” (though he is loosely based on the New Zealand pilot Alan Deere), while Cillian Murphy plays a man simply listed as “Shivering Soldier.” What Nolan’s film does capture (or, at least, strives to capture) is the evacuation’s sense of desperation and urgency. Ever fond of playing with chronology, Nolan divides the film into three plots, each beginning at a different temporal point in relation to the operation’s completion — namely, a week (“The Mole”), a day (“The Sea”), and an hour (“The Air”). The first of these timelines centers on a group of soldiers, stranded on Dunkirk beach, who are trying to board a ship back to England. They are all but defenseless against the bombardment of the Luftwaffe, and they scurry, almost silently, from vessel to vessel in hopes of deliverance.


The Mole

The second timeline features a civilian, his teenage son, and his son’s friend, who depart on a fishing boat from Weymouth and head toward Dunkirk, hoping to aid in the evacuation. As they cross the English Channel, they pick up a soldier stranded at sea, who is suffering from shell shock — a fateful decision, which puts their mission in jeopardy. The third timeline centers on a pair of British pilots, who are trying to provide much-needed cover for the evacuation. This is the most sublime sequence in the film. By using genuine Spitfires and mounting cameras to the planes’ wings, Nolan comes as close as possible to recreating an aerial dogfight.


The Air

Of course, as a representation of a historical event, the audience already knows how Dunkirk is going to end. But the denouement comes as a relief nonetheless. When, at last, Nolan permits us to hear Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address, we have a sense of how it must have been received by the soldiers who survived the evacuation — weary but hardened, traumatized yet grateful.

In many respects, it would seem that this accomplishment alone is significant, and that Dunkirk‘s critical acclaim (including eight Oscar nominations) is merited. I, for one, would agree. Dunkirk is a transfixing experience and, as a technical achievement, bests Nolan’s other tour de force, The Dark Knight (2008). But Dunkirk has its detractors too. As mentioned, much of the criticism has centered on the film’s minimal interest in historical context and character development — a problem that at least one commentator views as inherent in Nolan’s “postmodern narrativity”: “By focusing on the visual—elevating image over word—he wants us to feel rather than think, to re-experience rather than remember.” In giving priority to imagery, Nolan gives priority to “simulation,” that is, to overlaying the real event (the Dunkirk evacuation) with a series of sublime images that falsely pretend to repeat them (Dunkirk). That is why there is no God in Dunkirk either. Nolan has set himself up as the quasi-divine author of the world of Dunkirk (if not Dunkirk): “What Nolan does suggest…is that a virtual form of transcendence is available within the world, simply as a heightened experience of the world.”

This is an intriguing argument, which harks back to one of the classic debates in film theory: is the cinematic medium principally oriented toward recording and disclosing reality (per Siegfried Kracauer), or is cinema an illusion all the way down, giving the appearance of continuous movement when, in truth, it is a series of manipulated photographs projected at a certain speed (per Jean-Louis Baudry)? On the latter view, Nolan’s Dunkirk is surely a master class in illusory technique, cajoling the viewer (for the price of a ticket no less!) into believing that he or she is “right there” in battle, even though nothing could be farther from the truth. On the former view, Nolan’s techniques are persuasive precisely because they indicate and indeed mediate reality, and thus Dunkirk is a means of understanding our world, disclosing, among other things, the elemental human experiences of beauty, fear, love, and so on.

In the end, I tend toward cinematic realism, and so I am not terribly worried about Dunkirk‘s thin historicity. There is a sense in which Nolan’s approach here resembles that of Terrence Malick, contemporary cinema’s paragon of “realism.” As is well known, Malick was a Heidegger scholar and translator before becoming a filmmaker, and, accordingly, Malick treats art as a site where the “unconcealment” [alètheia] and “concealment” of entities is manifested and the presence of “divinities” [die Göttlichen] intimated. Might one say something similar about Nolan’s Dunkirk? Certainly it is a film attuned to things in themselves, to the interplay of earth and sky and mortals.


As a World War II film, moreover, Dunkirk views these elements over against the “enframing” of modern technology: entities are controlled and set aside for use. Air, land, and sea, even the human being as such, are revealed as instruments of a technological purpose. In this sense, the anonymity of the characters discloses their instrumental status.

And yet, there are points in Dunkirk where an excess breaks through — the sublimity of clouds and sun, the perilous beauty of the ocean, the human being’s primordial urge to live, to be home, all captured brilliantly by Hans Zimmer’s pealing score. In these moments, Dunkirk becomes a conduit for anthropological and theological reflection, perhaps even sacral experience. Here film does not just tell us about these themes; it makes us feel them.

Mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2017)


Today’s review comes courtesy of Ben Winter, who graduated from Villanova’s MA theology program in 2014 and is currently a PhD candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the thirteenth century, specifically on the thought of Saint Bonaventure. You can read more of his writing here (scholarly) and here (general audience). I appreciate Ben’s willingness to contribute to the site while I try to carve out more time to begin posting regularly again. Enjoy!



On a rare night out with a friend, I experienced the film Mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky. One of the first things I noticed in the film was the vibrating resonance created by common household activities. Switching on the light produces a flickering hum. Doors shutting resound with creaks and thuds. A torrent of water emanating from the bathroom faucet in another room suggests a distant rock ‘n roll soundwave. This film is firmly grounded in the material realm, and it depicts that realm in a strange and unsettling way. Aronofsky takes great pains to remind his audience of the basic (yet malleable and impermanent) nature of all created things. The house in which our protagonist (Jennifer Lawrence) spends the entire film is constantly heaving with the pangs of growth and destruction (or “generation and corruption”).[1] As the prime matter for our story, the staircases, tables, sinks, cellars, boards, hallways, windows, and doorways of this film set the stage for the unsettling events that take place within. Yet like the events that transpire in this film, the set pieces are themselves volatile—often playing tricks on the mind and finding unexpected [ab]use in the hands of human agents. Aronofsky begins and ends the film with a sequence of images that depicts the house being incinerated and then rebuilt. This wordless deluge of vignettes—again, bookending the entire film—signals that the story is taking place on an “elemental” level.

Act One

The theme of earthiness also pervades the plot of Mother! As its title suggests, the film chronicles—in fits and starts—the descent of an unnamed pregnant woman into a place of utter terror and madness (!). Although we are not informed of Lawrence’s pregnancy until midway through the film, she experiences visions (first revealed in the film’s opening act) of a pulsating ball of flesh. These visions are accompanied by spells of dizziness and spatial/audial hallucinations. From the beginning, it is clear that Lawrence is isolated by these visions. She never receives help during them—the rest of the world fades away and she is left to fend for herself (usually by mixing a strange yellow powder into a cup of water and consuming this “medicine”). Her husband, who is simply referred to as “Him,” is never aware of what happens, and consistently dismisses or overlooks Lawrence’s feelings. Throughout the film’s first act, we observe this couple playing out the roles of the tortured artist (“Him,” played by Javier Bardem) and the neglected (but innocent and admiring) spouse. The film really leans into these archetypical roles. When an older man (Ed Harris) enters the story, we quickly learn that the artist (“Him”) is quite interested in the affection and company of others—provided that they are not his wife. The character played by Ed Harris is obsessed with the artist, and creates a victimization narrative to gain his confidence. When Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, she immediately begins gaslighting Lawrence—domineering the conversation and normalizing the increasingly bold behavior of these two complete strangers who have invaded her home. Perhaps hardest-hitting are her comments about Lawrence’s failure to produce a baby—with the implication that this is all she is good for.

Act Two

Lawrence’s loss of control over herself is soon mirrored by her loss of control over the house. Just as a pregnant woman begins to bond in a different way with the world—and must give up control in many respects—so Lawrence becomes more and more susceptible to her environment, and to the actions of others. When the mysterious couple’s sons show up unannounced, a fight breaks out—culminating in the cold-blooded murder of one of the sons. “The artist” leaves the scene, because his priority is to take the mortally-wounded son to the hospital. Like so many other vignettes in the film, this episode reveals how Bardem’s character effectively ignores the needs of his wife (leaving her alone at home) under the pretense of helping others. Again, because he is the prototype of a tortured artist, he constantly gives of himself—through creativity and language—to strangers. And yet he cannot give himself to the only person who is truly able to give back with parity—his wife, who will soon carry their child. At the end of this second act, we are left wondering whether Lawrence will assert her needs more forcefully (she doesn’t), and to what extent the artist is malicious in his neglect.

Act Three

The latter question is answered resoundingly in act three. Late in the evening, the artist returns from his hospital trip. He informs Lawrence that the family and friends of these strangers will be coming to her home for a celebration. Accordingly, relatives start pouring in. As chaos thickens, Lawrence struggles to assert even a modicum of control over the rowdy scene; instead she ends up expending time and energy on menial household tasks (filling drinks, cleaning up spills or messes, and being called upon dismissively by guests to serve as “hostess”). The gathering spirals out of control, and erupts in violence. After managing to convince her husband to end the party, Lawrence is then attacked forcefully on the staircase by him. He slams her against the wall when she suggests (acting on what was said by Pfeiffer’s character) that he cannot even sleep with her, despite his seemingly endless ability to shower intimacy upon others. At first, it appears that he is going to rape her—and in fact, I would argue that he does. But she accepts his violent sexual advances like the receptive and malleable material of the house itself, given over to revelers by the artist.[2] And like the house, the woman is doomed to a violent end.

Act Four

In the fourth and final act, the film descends into a surrealist nightmare. Images of blood continue to haunt the now quite-pregnant Lawrence, and her visions of the ball of flesh are intensifying. While it appears that things are proceeding normally—the house is quiet, the baby’s room is nearly prepared—there is abject terror lurking beneath the surface. After the husband finishes his writing “project,” he shares it with his wife—who is elated and touched by the work. But when she finishes reading the text, it becomes clear that the artist has already jettisoned his creation out into the world—only giving it to his wife to read as an afterthought. Soon, an unending flow of people mob the house. At first, the crowd consists of paparazzi, journalists, and adoring fans. Lawrence struggles to keep them outside the home, but once a few slip in (ironically, a mother taking care of a child who has wet himself) the floodgates are broken. The following string of words is perhaps adequate to describe the next thirty minutes of this film: unimaginably intense and disturbing.

Time and space fluctuate rapidly as the house loses whatever structural integrity it may have had. Hordes of pilgrims seek the blessing of the artist, who happily focuses his attention and efforts on making them comfortable (“The poet says everything belongs to us!”). A very pregnant Lawrence is physically unable to reach her husband, due to the size of the crowd. As her home is torn apart by a relentless mob, Lawrence is battered (literally) from room to room as police in riot gear descend. No one is speaking to Lawrence, and the events are completely out of her control. Throughout these chaotic scenes, she experiences the painful throes of childbirth. When a police officer finally notices her (she is wearing a white gown, while all other characters are grimy and wearing shades of black), he is immediately shot in the head.

As the film reaches its climax, Lawrence’s husband attends to her labor, and delivers the baby in his home office (which had been boarded up earlier, and thus escaped being overrun by the throng). Aronofsky dials down the madness, giving the audience one last look at the family peace that could have been. Lawrence cuddles her cooing child, but refuses to allow the artist to touch her baby boy. He keeps the door barricaded and the hordes outside have gone suddenly quiet. The vast mob still lurks beyond the door, however, because the artist receives “gifts” from them: food and other items, ostensibly for the baby. When Lawrence falls asleep with the baby in her arms, she wakes to find that her husband has taken the child away. As she pries open the door, our ears are once again assaulted by auditory chaos—a pulsating collective of pilgrims raise the newborn on high and pass him around the home (while he cries and urinates—again, the film is radically focused on material things). This excruciating scene comes to an abrupt end when the boy snaps his neck on a steel support beam.

What follows is a somewhat disjointed and ineffective smattering of events. First, Lawrence slaughters a pack of worshippers. In a satanic parody of the Eucharist, these fiends dismember and consume the child—thus revealing the import of Lawrence’s “ball of flesh” visions. A few minutes later, the home explodes into the fiery abyss of a mushroom cloud. Here one can perhaps find support for an allegorical read of the film—as a depiction of humanity’s descent from the original family to the world-weary and world-destroying denizens of the present day. In the final scene, Lawrence (now a burning corpse) assents to the artist when he asks for the gift of her heart. Perhaps she is simply asking to be put out of her misery, but on a deeper level, this action sums up the film’s theme of male “taking.” As he reaches inside her body and removes its pulsating source, Lawrence shrivels into nothingness. This event triggers the magical rebuilding of the house, and (in what could be described as one of the film’s flaws) the cycle begins anew with a different woman.

Epilogue and Implications

Despite the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion (the film would have been more effective had it ended with the explosion of the home), it is evident that Aronofsky has created a masterpiece. This film is open to many interpretations, but its primary theme seems to concern the material foundation of life—a foundation that is at once shifting, volatile, and magically strange. The film (intentionally?) follows Aristotelian causality when it comes to Lawrence’s pregnancy. The artist is the formal cause; his distorted psyche creates the conditions in which the child becomes a distorted blob of flesh to be consumed by others. The mother is the material cause; she shelters and nurtures the child but exerts no control over its fate or telos. When it comes to the child’s death, the crowd is the material cause and the house is the formal cause. The artist is the efficient cause, since he willingly hands over his baby to the dangerous mass of people. The final cause of the boy’s death is also the artist: he accepts it as an acceptable “end,” and willingly participates in the ritualized appropriation of the murder. Perhaps Aronofsky is simply retelling the Eden story—with Eve as innocent victim of a capricious male psyche. In this interpretation, her child is the distorted son of the “god” that the artist has created of himself. A son must be sacrificed to appease the hunger and vulnerability of the god’s followers (scapegoating).

Yet Aronofsky’s societal critique is not limited to religion, or philosophy. The fundamental imbalance of motherhood and male-female relationships is laid bare by the brutal and manipulative artist—again, it is his agency that transforms the quiet and peaceful home into a den of thieves and murderers. The artist’s magnetism is the distorted inverse of the love that should develop between a woman, her world, and her child. There is a scene, between acts three and four, that effectively summarizes the film’s message. After the sexual conquering of Lawrence, we see the camera pan upwards from the two human beings in bed. The earth around their home begins to bloom, creating a beautiful and verdant garden that expands with vital energy. The home is ordered; the world is ordered. After this brief respite, the remainder of the film depicts the departure from this garden—culminating in the murder of a child, the ritualistic eating of the child’s flesh, and the father of the child stating, “We have to forgive them.” Because Lawrence rejects this narrative, she effectively becomes the sacrificial lamb—immolated upon the pyre of male domination. By placing Lawrence in such a position, Aronofsky powerfully urges his audience to feel both sympathy and horror. It says something very wrong about the world today if it takes a film like this (and it does) to remind us of the fragility of life, and of the dependence of all upon The Mother.

My Rating: 9/10

Recommended viewing, provided you have the stomach for psychological horror.

[1] I am using Lawrence’s real name for “the mother”—while using “Bardem’s character” (etc.) to describe the other actors—because Lawrence is our only protagonist.

[2] This point is emphasized throughout the film: Lawrence maintains—and possibly even built—the house; her husband writes.