Look, we weren’t going to do this. As much as we like to put up a good fight for controversial, or even bad, bits of pop culture, getting into the fray over mother! seemed needlessly messy. Darren Aronofsky’s latest head-scratcher lit up Film Twitter over the weekend, starting one of those nerd-offs where everyone had to take a side, posit a theory, or offer up some snarky witticism. It was like watching a massively multiplayer online exegesis of a President Trump tweet or a Kanye West album, but somehow even more exhausting.
But then something fascinating happened. The conversation turned to why it mattered that people were bickering about this movie in the first place. Was it because people didn’t know what they were buying a ticket for? Should Aronofsky been more forthcoming about the intentions of his film? His star Jennifer Lawrence thinks so. Should a big studio like Paramount Pictures have backed a movie like this? Paramount seems to think so. The studio’s head of marketing and distribution, Megan Colligan, even told The Hollywood Reporter, “We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s OK if some people don’t like it.”
Frankly, any movie that makes a studio stand up and say “Hey, you guys said you wanted original filmmaking, we’re trying to give it to you!” is the kind of movie we want to discuss. So we are. Below, mother!-lovers Brian Raftery and Angela Watercutter break down the brouhaha around the movie, and why it started all these arguments in the first place. (There are a few spoilers in this piece, obviously. You’ve been warned.)
Angela Watercutter: So obviously, I went on a wild goose chase to see this movie, so my my levels of Here for This were pretty high going in. But I gotta say, there were quite a few moments in the first hour of mother! where I was like “What is this? Moreover, do I like it?” Once it was over and I’d slept on it, though, I really loved it. There are still some things I take issue with, but I liked picking apart all of its myriad mysteries and I enjoyed that its allegories worked on multiple levels, commenting on religion, environmental issues, society’s treatment of women, and fame— amongst other things I probably haven’t even considered yet.
Then that “F” CinemaScore from audiences landed, kicked off a whole new wave of controversy. People who hated it felt vindicated; people who liked it felt the haters just didn’t “get” it. Blah, blah, blah. As I mentioned in the WIRED Culture Slack channel the other day, this movie is kind of made for film nerds and amateur theology students (and maybe even real theology majors, a la Aronofsky’s Pi felt that way).
I don’t say that to be like one of those “Oh, you just don’t get this movie” people. It’s not about understanding or not understanding mother!—I think it’s possible to grok what’s going on and still find it hard to connect with—it’s just about whether or not its themes speak to you. As a Catholic school survivor who writes about movies for a living, I liked it, but as I texted a friend the other day, it’s completely hateable, and I agree with Colligan that it’s fine if some people don’t like it.
I also tend to think that if your movie isn’t annoying anyone, then you’re doing it wrong. I liked what Sean Fennessey said at The Ringer this week about mother! being “the first freakout, the first emotional crisis at the movies in some time.” There’s value in pissing off the right people. What about you, Brian: What did you think of the backlash to the backlash to the backlash?
Brian Raftery: Not to play God here, Angela, but I do want to push back, just a bit, at the idea that mother! is somehow inaccessible to the non-nerds: I don’t think one has to grasp all of Aronofsky’s religious parallels in order to enjoy it (I only picked up on the biblical broad strokes, probably because I spent most of my CCD classes secretly reading copies of Mad). And I don’t believe you need a film degree to appreciate the movie’s pulpy, increasingly calamitous storytelling: As he did with Black Swan and The Wrestler, Aronofsky sticks to many of the rules of the genre—in this case, the home-invasion thriller—in order to sneak in some bigger ideas. There are plenty of fun (and even funny) creep-me-out scenes of mother!, especially in the first half, and the creaking wooden floors and wry, dark-hearted glares from Michelle Pfeiffer added to the spooky-ooky ambience.
The whole thing is kind of a bummer: In a year in which American audiences have been signaling the start of a stay-at-home resistance, along comes a big-star, big-studio movie that’s different than anything else out there. And the response seems to be: “Oof, no thanks.”
Granted, in its last 45 minutes or so, the lovingly restored home at the center of mother! descends into a decline-of-civilization madhouse, full of worshippers and rioters, climaxing in a brutally audible death that likely sent more than a few viewers to the parking lot before the film was finished. It’s a disorienting third act, and I certainly felt ill-at-ease for much of it—but, yeesh, have we reached the point where discomfort so easily leads to disdain? The most interesting movies of 2017 have been the ones that made me feel a little queasy by the end—from the Safdie brothers’ Good Time to Janicza Bravo’s Lemon to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (perhaps the most unsettling mainstream crowd-pleaser since The Silence of the Lambs). I felt the same way about mother!—by the time it ended, I was relieved to be out of that world. But I didn’t regret making the visit.
And what makes the glib, look-at-the-big-bomb pile-on so strange is that we’re living in an era of WTF television, a time when occasionally baffling shows American Gods and Twin Peaks: The Return invite endless bits of online forensics and clue-hunts. Yet, for some reason, people find that same inscrutability to be a major turn-off to moviegoers, even though they were warned ahead of time (seriously, who looks at that gory, glazed-expression poster and expects Silver Linings Playbook?).
A movie like mother! deserves discussion and argument and, to be sure, plenty of criticism; it doesn’t deserve a CinemaScore that puts it on par with the likes of Fear Dot Com, nor does it warrant a “defense” from Paramount. The whole thing is kind of a bummer: In a year in which American audiences have been signaling the start of a stay-at-home resistance—ignoring the big franchise flicks, and refusing to allow new ones to flourish—along comes a big-star, big-studio movie that’s different than anything else out there. And the response seems to be: “Oof, no thanks.”
AW: One hundred percent. (Side note: Speaking of fantastic movies that made me feel really uneasy this year, everyone should see Raw.) I also wonder who went into this thinking it was just going to be Silver Linings Playbook, or even Noah, for that matter. Even though the promotional campaign was purposefully vague, that ambiguity should’ve tipped people off that something was going to go asunder. Leading up to the movie’s release, Aronofsky was adamant that people go into it blind; he wanted them to be able to decipher it for themselves. Lawrence wants people to know the allegory going in, lest they miss the movie’s brilliance. I honestly don’t know which is better. I went in knowing almost nothing because I wanted to, but I think I would’ve started picking up on clues earlier if I’d known what was going on. It’s fun to be able to decipher it for yourself—and encourages repeat viewings—but maybe a clue or two would’ve helped. That said, you’re right: we live in an era when endless reddit threads aim to decode Twin Peaks, so a complicated movie shouldn’t come across as a turn-off.
Speaking of, Brian, I’ve been asking everyone this: When did the metaphors click for you? When did it become obvious what Aronofsky was doing (or trying to do)? For me it was when Oldest Son (Domhnall Gleeson) killed Younger Brother (Brian Gleeson). That was the moment I really started getting into it, and I wonder if it’s one of those situations where it’s not enjoyable if the message doesn’t become obvious until the end. It’s a brutal film and I think if it didn’t have a larger point it would probably just feel like torture.
BR: As I mentioned before, the big-picture, Book of Genesis-indebted ideas weren’t always obvious to me (though, yep, the Cain and Abel allusions were pretty easy to spot). Instead, I was wrapped up in its hyper-cuckoo depiction of the way we destroy what we’re given—an ecologically minded message that feels especially relevant during Hurricane 2017—as well the more subtly layered notion of how our culture, and our world, treats women, especially famous women. The flashing camera lights, the just-let-me-touch-you mob-pleas, even the use of hacking victim Jennifer Lawrence—it all felt very much like a commentary on the way we construct, and then degrade, our own modern female icons.
But then again, maybe I’m the only person who felt that way—which is one of the reasons why mother! is such essential viewing: It says something different to each moviegoer, and lets you hear it in your own voice. I’m not a big fan of artists interpreting their work for others; I like ambiguity, and believe the best art can never be quote-unquote “solved.” So while I understand, from a marketing standpoint, why Lawrence pushes Aronofksy to explain mother! in that recent Times piece, part of me wishes they simply put it out and never talked about, and instead let the audience pull it apart for themselves.
AW: Oooh, that’s interesting. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they just never spoke about it, even if it’s a little too late for that now. But to go back to your earlier point about the movie’s commentary on the treatment of women, I read/heard from a few people who thought Lawrence was miscast, that the woman who played Katniss Everdeen couldn’t be that internal. But I think her celebrity added a smart layer. Jennifer Lawrence is America’s (and the internet’s) most universally liked movie star right now, but between her private photos being released on the internet and the Sony hack revealing she was making less than her male co-stars, she’s still experiences misogyny. And as a celebrity, every outfit she wears, every haircut she gets, and every joke she makes gets meticulously scrutinized. Having her be the person trying to protect herself from the prodding, “cunt”-calling masses in Aronofsky’s movie felt like a masterstroke. The only scene(s) that didn’t sit right with me were the ones where she is attacked verbally or physically—mostly because I just don’t like seeing women attacked across-the-board—but I understood the motivation. (When she went full Giving Tree at the end and lamented that she had nothing left, I felt that—and not just because I’ve always loved that book.) If it’s hard to watch, that’s because society’s treatment of women is hard to watch. mother! just makes it explicit.
BR: I thought Lawrence was fantastic, especially when you consider that Aronofsky frequently shoots her face in close-up; in the first half, when she’s trying hard to make nice with the loonies who have started gobbling up her home, she has to convey a lot of her frustration and disappointment with the slightest stares and quivers. It’s the kind of performance you almost want to revisit with the sound off, in order to better understand how it was crafted.
And indeed, the physical attacks on her in mother! were horrifying—even more so than That One Scene That Freaked Everyone Out. I don’t imagine making mother! was much fun for her, or for her director, but I’m glad they went through with it. This year may have been a bad one for blockbusters, but for those of us who crave grown-up movies that spur grown-up conversations, it’s been surprisingly solid: Get Out, Logan, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman, The Beguiled were all films that prompted viewers to walk straight from the theater to the diner, so they could hash out what they’d just seen. We need more gotta-talk-about-it movies like them, and like mother!—even if (especially if) those conversations require a few exclamation points.