The internet has been ablaze with discussion of Darren Aronofsky’s most recent film, mother! Instead of reviewing the film proper, I have decided to say my piece in a format I haven’t used before: A list. Lists are fun, right?
All right, the truth is, I don’t have much interest in writing a straight review of mother! My main reason being that I didn’t like it very much and the idea of writing an entire piece explaining why feels tedious to me and I’m sure it would be tedious to read. I’d rather use the informal list format to illuminate some key things to remember when evaluating the critical and public reception of mother!
1. Not everyone wants to see women abused onscreen.
mother! is a film that simulates the abuse of women. Specifically, one woman. This woman is also our main character, and the most (possibly only) sympathetic character in the entire film. Now, I can hear your keystrokes already. I’m sure you want to tell me that the abuse Jennifer Lawrence endures in the film is allegorical. It ties into all the deeper meanings of the film. It is symbolic of the way women have been mistreated by society since the beginning of the time. Another interpretation is that Lawrence is Mother Earth, and as such, the abuse she experiences throughout the film (to her home, her emotions, and her physical body) is supposed to represent the way humanity has mistreated the Earth and depleted its resources. There are many ways to interpret the psychological, emotional and physical pain that Lawrence experiences onscreen as Mother, and it is good to consider all this within your own analysis.
Your analysis doesn’t change what an audience sees onscreen. What it does do is allow the audience to gain a better understanding of the abuse they see. Perhaps that will be enough for enough people. It’s possible that a viewer can leave the theater angry, read your review, and then feel better about what they saw.
But they don’t have to. And there is nothing wrong with the viewer if your analysis doesn’t go over the way you want it to. Sometimes analysis isn’t enough to change how someone feels about a film. Analysis is not foolproof.
This is especially important to remember when you think about what exactly you’re asking viewers to contextualize here. You’re asking viewers to set aside their discomfort over watching a woman get abused onscreen by a man who is also her husband. A man that literally drains the life out of her and allows for a mob of people to:
- Destroy the house she built, piece by piece
- Eat her baby, right after she gives birth to him
- Beat the shit out of her, after she rightfully tries to get revenge for the death of her son
It’s really not surprising that seeing this onscreen upset viewers.
Full disclosure: Watching the film triggered my PTSD. Surprise! People have trauma. Films can trigger it. It’s just how life works sometimes.
So, yeah. I’m sympathetic to discomfort. I guess that makes me a bad critic? What a waste. I have this whole site and everything! Maybe I should call the whole thing off.
2. Not everyone follows the film industry like critics do.
mother! had minimalist, sometimes deceptive marketing. The average viewer probably had no clue what they were getting to. It could have easily been thought of as a haunted house movie. Think, for a moment, about the people who don’t regularly follow things like teaser posters, teaser trailers, interviews, film festival buzz, etc. Those people had no idea what they were getting into. Not everyone knows directors by name. Not everyone knows full filmographies of directors. Not everyone sits around contemplating cinematic motifs.
A lot of critics have spent their entire lives living and breathing film, myself included. It’s easy for us to get up our own asses and expect that everyone knows what we know and cares for what we care for. That’s just not the case. The truth is, some people just go to the cinema to relax and treat themselves after punching a clock all week. Some people only go to the movies to feel good. That is the only emotion they want to feel. And that should be fine. These folks turn to critics to see what they might enjoy.
Not everyone goes to the theater to get emotionally wrecked. And even when they do, many of these same people want to feel some sense of hope at the end of their film. They want to be taken through the ringer, but come out the other side okay. mother! just doesn’t do that for everyone. And that’s fine. It’s clearly not supposed to. Aronofsky wasn’t trying to make us feel good, and I respect that.
But you also need to respect that people might not like it.
The last trailer I saw for mother! played right before IT. It was a grindhouse style trailer; advertising chills and thrills before ending by urging audiences to go right downstairs after their movie and buy a ticket for the film.
Advertising mother! that way is like telling folks to get on a hayride but neglecting to mention that there are literal needles in the haystacks. The studio knew what they were doing by selling it that way. And it worked. It got butts in seats. But those butts also have opinions. You can’t get one without the other.
Which brings us to…
3. Audiences aren’t required to like a film you like.
The only thing audiences are supposed to do is see movies. As long as they do, the industry continues to thrive and critics can stay employed. Telling the audience how wrong they are is not a valuable way to tackle film criticism. Come on, now. We spent the entire summer talking about how silly it was that studios, filmmakers and actors have been blaming Rotten Tomatoes for films underperforming. We’ve talked ad nauseam about the opinions of critics and audiences aren’t as different as studios are pretending they are. Audience opinion and critical opinion line up more than we realize. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the critical and box office success of Get Out earlier this year. And get Get Out was an indie horror film made with a $4.5 million budget. How much did mother! cost?
30 million. That’s nearly 7 times the budget of Get Out.
To call the negative public reception of mother! a threat to arthouse and indie cinema is hyperbolic and incredibly short-sighted. There has been so much talk about how it’s unbelievable that Paramount paid for the film and distributed it widely… but it really isn’t all that impressive. Aronofsky is an established director who has been making films for almost two decades now. If Paramount hadn’t bankrolled mother! someone else would have. Maybe if Aronofsky was a first time director, this argument would have made sense. But remember: $30 million.
It’s really disgenuous to paint an established, white male director with critical and commercial successes under his belt as some kind of underdog that’s saving indie cinema. You’re not making indie cinema when two of the biggest stars in the world are starring in your seventh feature film. In 2010, Aronofsky made Black Swan with an $13 million budget and the film wound up making $329.4 million. This isn’t 1998 and mother! isn’t Pi. Stop twisting the narrative to fit your preferences.
If you’re a critic in 2017 saying that a well-off white man who has been exploring the same themes for years now is going to “save the arthouse” you aren’t looking at the whole picture. You’re deifying a dude because you like his film and because you’re mad that other people don’t like it. Just be honest about that.
4. Using the female body as a vessel for allegory and/or myth is a very old narrative convention.
It is a tactic that is older than all of us. It’s a tale as old as time. You don’t need a film degree to see it. You don’t have to have an MFA in Literature. You just have to have eyes and have lived on this planet for 10 years or more. Darren Aronofsky was not reinventing the wheel with mother! He created a visceral experience that commanded all of your senses and attention. That’s his skill as a storyteller and a filmmaker. But that does not make the story profound or the film a game-changer, narratively speaking. If someone doesn’t see something deep within the film, there’s a good chance they understand what it’s trying to do and it just doesn’t impress them.
That is definitely the case for me. What the film was trying to say didn’t feel worth the experience (for me). I’m a fairly socially, emotionally and politically conscious person. I know we are destroying the environment. I know that it’s hard for women (because I am one). I was also raised in the Baptist church, so I caught the biblical allegory as well. And honestly, I’ve also been abused by men. A lot of men. In many different ways. And it’s that abuse that left me with the PTSD in the first place. The PTSD that was triggered by my viewing of the film.
If you got something out of mother! that’s wonderful. But there is nothing that Aronofsky was trying to say with the film that hasn’t been expressed with more depth elsewhere. He’s not a prophet. He’s a filmmaker. He reflects our society right back at us with his work. He is not providing us with answers as to how to save the world (and I never expected him to).
5. It’s not Jennifer Lawrence’s mother! It’s Darren Aronofsky’s.
I might lose you all with this one, because the hate for Jennifer Lawrence has been strong lately. But here is my hot take: Jennifer Lawrence is the best thing about mother! (The house is also great, but let’s focus on her for the purposes of this list. And she IS the house, technically.) She gives a powerhouse performance, building palpable tension and dread with just a look. She straps us into the ride with her, and when she finally snaps in the third act I was right there with her.
(Actually I got angry about 30 minutes in and stayed angry for the rest of the film.)
Jennifer Lawrence did not write or direct the film. What she did do was star in it, and she did a great job. But I’m noticing a lot of reviews, especially the negative ones, refer to the film as “Jennifer Lawrence’s mother!” Now, I understand that she’s the big star here and more of a household name than Darren Aronofsky. Still, I’m uncomfortable with the negative responses to the film weighing on her shoulders in that way. Everything about mother! that is intense or upsetting is due to the script and direction. Lawrence does the best she can with the material and gives the audience an anchor to hold onto to when things start descending into chaos.
If Lawrence is the reason a person doesn’t like the film, there’s a good chance their real issue is with her and not mother!
This is a thing we do; weighing the success or failure of a film on the shoulders of its star. It is especially easy to do when a person isn’t necessarily film-literate, but I don’t see why major Hollywood-related publications would make that mistake. Yes, she did agree to sign on the film knowing in some sense what it was going to be. No, I don’t think that makes her at fault for the way audiences reacted to the film. This is especially true because she plays the character that is hurt the most onscreen. It seems bizarre and a bit on the sexist side to walk out of a film (in which we watch a woman get hurt so much that she willingly burns herself alive) and then blame the actress who played that woman.
But what to do I know? I’m probably too emotional and feminist to be a proper film critic anyway. I’m quite sure you can throw a rock and find 3 critics that will disagree with everything I said here and support all of your opinions. That’s the beauty of having so many different voices in film criticism now. You can always find someone who you can relate to.
So, with all that in mind… is it really useful to manufacture an unjustified dogpile narrative on a film, just because you’re upset that more people don’t adore it the way you do? Is it necessary to belittle other people’s intelligence because they don’t see the same depth you see in a film? Is it wise to laugh at people for being uncomfortable with the graphic violence and psychological abuse the main character faces when real women go through that every day?
Are you going to finish this piece and laugh about how I was triggered? Or are you going to accept that PTSD is a real thing that affects many people and acknowledge that you just aren’t one of them?
You decide how you will you react. That’s the only thing you can control. It’s good to remember that.