Honestly, it’s probably best not to try… but here goes.
Darren Aronofsky’s films usually inspire debate. From the manic dread of Requiem For A Dream to the time-tripping earnestness of The Fountain to the gonzo horror-art of Black Swan, Aronofsky goes for broke in his filmography, taking huge artistic risks. A lot of cinephiles adore him for it — myself included. Some find his films too heavy-handed… a little much.
By most metrics, Black Swan is his biggest success thus far — raking in overs $300 million worldwide, admired by critics and audiences, a Best Picture nomination and an Oscar for Natalie Portman. There are plenty of people who didn’t care for Black Swan, my favorite film of 2010, and I get that. Because it’s art. Not many films are made these days, truly, as art — those that are are made on such a small scale, the general public never hears about them.
But the general public has heard about Mother, hasn’t it? And like the best art, it is provoking some very strong opinions.
If you don’t like any other Darren Aronofsky movies, there’s almost no hope you’ll love Mother. It doubles, then triples, then quadruples down on all the things his harshest critics lambast him for. It’s somewhat obscure, but not subtle. (The official title is mother!, after all.) And even if you adored Requiem For A Dream or Black Swan, that’s no guarantee you’ll have the same goodwill toward Mother. For some Aronofsky fans, this is a bridge too far into this auteur’s brand of grandiose intensity, a film that marries his two most love-it-or-hate titles, The Fountain and Black Swan. Like The Fountain, Mother explores a relationship between a man and a woman in a very unconventional fashion. Like Black Swan, it strands us in a tormented young woman’s point of view. However much you liked or did not like The Fountain and Black Swan, multiply it by ten, and there’s my prediction of how you’ll feel about Mother. Mother is probably best categorized as a horror film, though it’s a far cry from Annabelle or It. Like recent indie horror hits like It Follows, The Babadook, and Get Out, there’s more on Mother‘s mind than thrills and chills. Much more. A lot of horror films are allegories; very few are only allegories. But that’s what Mother is. There’s no way to take the story at face value — to believe its characters are real, relatable people, or that the situation they find themselves in is literally happening. In its simple set-up, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple living in an idyllic, isolated house, with no hints of any neighbors nearby. They soon find their domestic paradise intruded upon, first by a man claiming to be a doctor (Ed Harris), and next by his mischievous wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). None of these characters have names, which is a good tip-off that there’s more to what’s happening than meets the eye.
It’s understandable why filmgoers expecting a studio horror-thriller would be put off by Mother. First of all, making sense of it requires work. Very little of what happens in the film is logical, and the characters don’t behave quite like real people would in such circumstances. (Because they’re not.) Aronofsky has been pretty straightforward regarding what Mother is “about,” while leaving room for alternate interpretations. Mother is art. The artist has his intent. And, as in all works of art, other elements from the author’s psyche find their way in, too — maybe consciously, maybe not. Mother is all allegory, but thinking it’s all one allegory is a boring interpretations. The film works on many levels at once, commenting upon the past, present, and future of human existence, both real and imagined. You might leave the theater asking, “Was it about the Bible? Or climate change? Or fame? Or the subjugation of women?” The answer is yes.I doubt that any one single interpretation of Mother justifies all its disparate parts. Rather, it’s a film of ideas, and these ideas may differ from scene to scene. I already likened one other 2017 movie to an “art project” — David Lowry’s A Ghost Story, which in many ways is a very similar film. (It is also equally likely to alienate filmgoers who prefer not to have to think about what they’re seeing.) Both Mother and A Ghost Story take place almost entirely within one house. Both have a jarring approach to the passage of time. Both focus in on an unnamed male and an unnamed female, though there are occasional intruders into each story. Both movies are made to provoke thought in willing viewers — complex and esoteric thoughts about life, love, mortality, and plenty more. Neither film is specific to its protagonists — because neither film has real characters, per se. These films work less as stories about individuals, and more as ruminations on mankind itself. Is that ambitious, or pretentious? Yes.
Mother is a film I’ll need to watch it again, multiple times, to sort through all the many thoughts I had while watching it. I’ll have to grapple with it a while before I know how I truly feel about it. That makes it a success. The rapid-fire pace of the internet has taken a lot of the art out of moviegoing; everything is love it or hate it, the best or the worst, rotten or fresh, “liked” or unliked… and word travels fast. Mother has a fascinating “F” Cinemascore and has stirred up so much ire amongst its potential fan base. I think that’s great. I see plenty of films meant to provoke such reactions, but most people don’t. They see The Fate Of The Furious and It and Beauty And The Beast. (I see some of those, too.) Most people don’t have a chance to get riled up about a m0vie that was made to infuriate them anymore. You have to seek that experience out, and most don’t. But this weekend, I’m seeing so many real reactions to this film. I find that encouraging.Yes, plenty are attempting to dismiss the movie as “awful.” But what was awful, Mother-haters? The performances? The visual effects? The cinematography? It’s fair to challenge these elements of the filmmaking, but they’re too purposeful to write-off as merely “bad.” Most Mother-haters would probably agree that on a technical level, it’s largely a well-made film. What a lot of people mean by “it sucks,” in Mother‘s case, is that the experience of watching it challenged them, and they did not enjoy being challenged. You can walk into a museum and look at a painting and call it terrible, if you wish, but what you really mean is that you didn’t like it, and the reason you didn’t like it is because of an emotional response. Some movies are terrible, abjectly failing at what they set out to do. But Mother knows exactly what it’s doing — the CinemaScore “F” proves it. Even for those who hated every minute of it, Mother will linger in the mind. It won’t be forgotten. Its themes may come back to those who saw it in unexpected moments. Fans of the film will continue challenging critics, and hopefully draw out debate. I love that people found Mother to be really, truly excruciating — because it’s a response. Mother won’t be seen far and wide by mainstream moviegoers, despite its sizeable release, but even the viewership it’s achieved thus far is impressive, for any work of art. It’s an antidote to the big screen binkys that dominate the box office — another Star Wars, another Spider-Man, another live-action Disney cartoon. Mother doesn’t play by the rules today’s moviegoers have been trained to abide. It isn’t neat, or safe, and it won’t remind you of anything from your childhood. Your Netflix queue won’t be able to predict whether or not it’s “for you.” (Well, maybe if you’ve given low scores to every other Darren Aronofsky movie.) It doesn’t care for tomatoes — fresh, rotten, or otherwise.
That isn’t to say it’s not valid to absolutely, positively fucking loathe this movie with every fiber of your being. But to do so honestly, you’ll have to grapple with Mother, and at least some of what it’s trying to say. It is a film meant to remind the frog that he’s sitting in a pot of boiling water, though most frogs prefer not to be reminded. Let’s discuss.
Aronofsky’s Mother is a cinematic expression of “giving zero fucks,” an exceptionally weird film by any standard. It may be an intentional joke, on his part, that so many who deride Mother for “bad storytelling” literally worship this exact same story. (Does that one make sense?) The ire audiences have for Mother comes as no surprise in a year like 2017 — it is a film made outside of the bubble, no matter which bubble you’re in. Most movies this strange and surreal are elusive, as in the works of David Lynch. By contrast, Mother is in your face — willfully, defiantly challenging, but not the kind of movie you need to “figure out.” There’s no puzzle to be solved, no key to understanding it better. The more you know about Mother, the more questions it will raise. The more I review it, the more I need to keep on reviewing it. So I might as well stop now.
Mother is a work of art, meant to provoke strong reactions and incite debate. So far, it’s working.