Last Saturday I did something nearly everyone does when their friend goes to the bathroom at a bar: I checked Twitter. There, amidst the Hurricane Irma updates and breathless discussion about Hillary Clinton’s new book, was a very simple message from Darren Aronofsky. After spending a few seconds to try and remember when I actually started following the Black Swan director (inconclusive), I realized what his message was saying: “now #nyc #scavengerhunt” next to an image of Jennifer Lawrence from his upcoming movie mother! and a New York telephone number. My friend returned from the bathroom and I showed her the tweet. “I think Darren Aronofsky is having a scavenger hunt in New York tonight,” I said. My friend, the smart one, just said, “Well, call and find out.”
I dialed. A prerecorded message delivered in what I can only best describe as Stalker Siri said “Welcome” and informed me that my pilgrimage began by going to the northeast corner of Columbus Park, where I was to look for the “ape with the horn.” (I later learned it was “agent with the horn”—the Stonewall Inn is pretty loud, even at 4 pm on a Saturday.) We were only about 30 minutes away. I jotted the info on a bar napkin and we headed to Chinatown.
As soon as we got there, I immediately spotted a few people in film-student chic surrounding a woman in mechanics’ coveralls standing next to what looked like a saxhorn. (Maybe? I don’t know horns.) My friend pointed out that she had an earpiece in. Definitely an agent. Fully realizing I was a grown-ass person about to ask another full adult if she was part of a scavenger hunt to see a Jennifer Lawrence movie, I hung back for a few minutes and played with my phone, like a creep. The film students took off.
I approached the woman. She looked me directly in the eye. “Um, hi. I’m…” “Whom do you seek?” she asked. Crap. Was this like Sleep No More? Was I supposed to have a character? I stammered. “Mother?” This was the right answer. “Thumb,” she said. I stuck my opposable up like Maverick getting into an F-14 cockpit. She produced a stamp pad and a square of thin paper. I gave her my thumbprint. (This would’ve been a great scam for someone attempting to steal my iPhone.) She told me to take the paper across the street and find the yellow paint on the sidewalk and follow it until I found “the agent with the suitcase.” (All these agents! The details of mother! had been kept tightly under wraps in the weeks before its release, but I was pretty sure no one was KGB. That’s Lawrence’s other movie.)
Awareness that you’re an adult holding a copy of your thumbprint asking a stranger if he’s an “agent” feels weird. Even in New York City.
I retrieved my friend and said, “We’ve got to go.” Sure enough, there was a dribble of golden paint on the sidewalk leading west on Bayard Street into SoHo. The yellow paint road ended and … nothing. There was a dude with a knapsack sitting outside the back entrance of a store. Couldn’t be. Again, awareness that you’re an adult holding a copy of your thumbprint asking a stranger if he’s an “agent” feels weird. Even in New York City. (Well, not really.) “Ask him,” my friend said. I approached. “Are you the agent with the suitcase?” He stared blankly. “Sorry. Never mind.” “Wait. … Listen for it.” I stopped. Someone down an alley was literally whistling. Next to a goddamn suitcase. I approached and held out my thumbprint paper like an idiot. The man, in a trench coat and sporting a finely waxed handlebar mustache, took out a lighter and lit the paper on fire and smiled. (He no longer could unlock my phone, but this was now an excellent opportunity for a mugging or making a career shift to sex work.) He lifted the suitcase and placed it flat across my arms. Opening it, he produced a red pepper and told me it was all I needed. I took it and walked away, so confused.
Showing it to my friend I realized I could hear and feel something jangling inside. I cracked it open. It was a skeleton key attached to a gold disc with the number “89” embossed on it. Maybe this actually was a ploy to get me to take up hooking. Hey, I don’t know what Aronofsky does with his weekends. Then I realized there was another phone number pressed into the metal. I called it. A slightly different sounding Stalker Siri congratulated me on “making it this far” and told me I’d been granted entrance to the premiere of mother! The key was my ticket and I had to find yet another agent at 51st Street and 6 ½ Avenue on September 13. (6 ½ Avenue is a real place, conveniently located near Radio City Music Hall.) The voice also instructed me to “dress for a funeral.” (Who was dead? What was dead? Me? Aronofsky’s career? Paramount Pictures’ marketing budget? I had no idea.)
Exactly what the whole scavenger hunt had to do with mother! is unclear. Even after seeing the film, it’s hard to see the connection. Though that might be intentional. Prior to its release, very few details about Aronofsky’s movie made it to the public. The plot was simply described as “a couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home.” People who saw it early were asked to sign NDAs. Maybe the themes of the hunt were intentionally different than those of the movie so as not to spoil it. (To be fair, the film does feature people on a pilgrimage, there is a funeral of sorts, and I think I remember seeing a red pepper.) What’s more clear is why the director would hold a scavenger hunt in the first place. When you’re treating your movie’s plot like Schrödinger’s cat, you’ve gotta do something to get people interested in its box.
When you’re treating your movie’s plot like Schrödinger’s cat, you’ve gotta do something to get people interested in its box.
Four days after the hunt, I went to the prescribed location and found the same agent who’d taken my thumbprint. This time she was in a black dress with a funeral veil on. “Nice to see you again,” she said as I produced my key. “One ticket or two?” I took two. I was bringing the friend I’d dragged through this whole mess in the first place. We went inside Radio City Music Hall, where Aronofsky introduced his film and apologized for what it was about to do.
I’m telling you all this because the whole mess is ridiculous. I’m also telling you all this because trying to explain, analyze, or unpack mother! is like trying to follow a Mobius strip to its rightful end. There isn’t one, and trying to point people to one isn’t fair. Aronofsky’s new film is about a couple’s life getting upended by the arrival of new guests, but it’s also the story of what happens when creators (like Javier Bardem’s character “Him”) value their creations above all else (like Lawrence’s “Mother”). It’s bizarre, a horror-tragicomedy that leaves conclusions up to you. (That’s a compliment.) I’m not even sure if it’s good, but it hasn’t escaped my mind in days, so my inkling is that its provocative qualities eclipse the fact that it begs the question “Am I enjoying this?” Some see it as a religious allegory, others as a call for ecological awareness. Many claim it’s beyond the pale. Everyone is correct. Or they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter. Aronofsky’s garden of earthly delights might be the strangest thing out there until Stranger Things comes back, and that makes it the perfect antidote to the summer’s superheroes.
As the credits rolled, the floor below the screen began to open and a silhouette appeared in the darkness. I whispered to no one in particular, “That’s fucking Patti Smith.” That’s not a joke. She really showed up and did a three-song set, read Rebecca Solnit’s reinterpretation of “Our Father,” and closed the night by dedicating “Because the Night” to Lawrence and “her chosen one.” Like so many other aspects of mother!, I don’t want to overanalyze why this happened, I just want to be glad that it did.