To be a man in contemporary society means you are given a level of unchecked, and often underserved, power. With that power comes little responsibility. One need only look at the last few weeks’ worth of headlines to see first hand the unchecked vanity that comes with masculinity. In addition, that vanity leads to abuses of power with little or no repercussions.

I could be referring to any number of men from the headlines of the last few weeks. Take your pick of which one. I’m referring to all of them.

It sometimes feels like writing about movies or television during times like this feels somewhat frivolous and pointless. Who cares what a film might mean when the people making these movies are being revealed as predatory monsters?

It is through art that we can often understand these darker parts of ourselves. It is through films that we can speak about the problems that many want to run away from. Directors Darren Aronofsky and Yorgos Lanthimos both explored the way male privilege and masculinity is the root of our modern societal strife in their movies MOTHER! and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER.

MOTHER! And the Power of The Creator

Mother

Like the directors themselves, the male leads are both “creators.” In MOTHER!, Javier Bardem’s character, referred to only as Him, is a writer. On the other hand, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER centers around heart surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell). Each of them sees themselves as gods. One is a creator of the written word and fictional worlds; the other wields the power of life and death. Like filmmakers, they create and destroy while thriving off of the adoration of those around them.

Aronofsky himself has discussed that his inspiration for MOTHER! comes from his strong environmental beliefs. The Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) of the title represents Mother Earth. The enigmatic Him is the creator figure of the piece. This is further cemented by the way the film slowly recreates the stories of Adam and Eve to Cain and Able, to a manic nightmare conclusion.

The home that Mother is so connected to is destroyed by the multiplying groups of people invading her domestic tranquility. Eventually, Mother realizes the only way to rid herself of humanity’s destruction is with a purging fire. Of course, Him begins the process all over again. This time with a new version of Mother in place of the old one.

Aronofsky’s version of God is not the compassionate figure of most religious texts. MOTHER! portrays him as an insecure, vain man.  His hubris comes from the certainty that what he is doing is necessary. He believes his creative vision is vital to the rest of the world that it must be seen, regardless of how violent and out of control his followers have become. His creation takes precedence over his wife and his future child. The love of the masses is all that matters.

Behind the Scenes

While Aronofsky’s on-the-record interpretation of his work is certainly valid, there’s something deeply personal at the core of MOTHER!. In many ways, the film can be interpreted as an allegory treatise on Hollywood’s treatment of women. Him is the creative visionary who pushes aside his doting wife for the adoration of his “fans.” In turn, Mother destroys herself trying to earn Him’s affections.

The adoring fans of Him reject her and beat her when she tries to chase them out. When she is literally burned out and used up, she is replaced by a different “model.” How often do we see young actresses touted out as the “next big thing” only for them to be ripped apart by the press and the public?

In her review of Louis CK’s I LOVE YOU, DADDY (a work that now feels like a dark window into the director’s personal psyche), NY Times film critic Manohla said:

Cinema has long served as a vehicle for male onanism, a space in which male fantasies about sexual power over women are expressed on screen and enacted behind the camera.”

There’s something nakedly personal about MOTHER!. Aronofsky is connecting the male entitlement and exploitation of actresses in Hollywood to the same kind of ego that makes our predominantly male government desecrate the environment. They are both products of masculine hubris, and Aronofsky seems to recognize and acknowledge his role in this abusive cycle. It’s this male-centric self-importance that that causes a path of destruction with women in its wake.

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THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER dabbles in Greek Myth just as Aronofsky’s reinvents the Old Testament. Lanthimos’ dark drama is a modern reinterpretation of the myth of Iphigenia. In the myth, King Agamemnon, father of Iphigenia, accidentally kills a sacred deer, angering the goddess Artemis. Artemis tells Agamemnon that he must sacrifice his daughter to atone for his mistake. To punish him, Artemis takes away the winds to keep his army from sailing to the Trojan war.

Lanthimos’ version of Agamemnon is Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) a surgeon who accidentally killed the father of Martin (Barry Keoghan) during an operation. Steven takes Martin under his wing as an act of atonement, but he is put off by Martin’s deeply disturbed personality and his desperate attempts to force Martin into an affair with his mother (Alicia Silverstone). When Steven begins to rebuke Martin’s attention, the boy reveals that if Steven doesn’t kill one of his own family members as retribution for his father’s death, they will all die under mysterious circumstances.

As promised, Steven’s family members are each stricken with a mysterious paralysis and loss of appetite. Rather than the winds, it’s the physical bodies of Steven’s family that are taken away as his punishment. Throughout all of this, Steven remains convinced that he did nothing wrong and that he can find a cure for his ailing family. He is so certain about his abilities as a surgeon that he refuses to acknowledge his mistake. “A surgeon never kills a patient,” he says. “An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can.” Unsurprisingly, Steven’s anesthesiologist friend later says the opposite.

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Who’s to Blame?

It’s in this simple, oblivious statement that we see the inability of abusers to admit their own complicity in their actions. The abusers usually deny allegations or offer weak apologies. Just as egregious are the actions of those, who witness or are made aware of the abuses but do nothing.

Much like Him in MOTHER!, for Steven, people, especially women, are little more than passive objects to stroke their vanity or sexual gratification. The most unsettling scene in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER does not come from Martin’s troubling behavior, but rather from the bedroom activity of Steven and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). Anna lays her naked body out like a patient etherized on their bed.

This is how Steven prefers his wife: passive, unmoving, and under his control, just like his patients. Again we return to power. Steven’s power of life and death is what gives him a sexual thrill to the point where he is literally impotent without it. However, Steven holds that power without any sense of responsibility for his actions.

Ultimately, Steven, powerless against forces larger than himself, randomly chooses his sacrifice in a morbid farce. He spins around blindfolded clutching a shotgun with his family tied up and blindfolded. He misses twice before finally shooting his youngest child. Balance has been restored, but by the end of THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, there is not the sense that Steven has learned anything.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As we argue over “why do we get mad at male celebrity x and not male celebrity y,” we have to confront a hard truth; we should be angry at all of them. Men, we should be angry at our brothers for not respecting the bodies of other people, male or female.

As we see in MOTHER! and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, these problems are not new. We’ve taken too long to look at our behavior. We are long overdue for a reckoning of how we use our power in relation to the powerless. It’s time to finally learn from our past.

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