‘mother!’ and the new genre-of-meaning cinema
Editor’s note: Major plot spoilers below. Though we maintain this movie is innately unspoilable.
By now you’ve almost certainly made up your mind about Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” even if you haven’t seen the film -- maybe especially if you haven’t seen it.
The latest release from the director of “Black Swan” and “Noah,” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, of course generated all kinds of early fan buzz, then all sorts of weird and weirdly avoidant critical reactions, then all kinds of viewer confusion, then all sorts of flop pronouncements -- all while a surprisingly high percentage of professional film writers seemed to care little about the film’s deeper meaning. Congressional healthcare reform has been less of a muddle.
Everything you need to know about the movie’s image difficulties can be summed up by, well, how people summed it up.
Ostensibly a horror-tinged domestic drama about a poet and his wife in a country house beset by unknown guests, “mother!” is actually pretty clearly an alternate take on biblical history as well as a projection of future biblical-level disasters. According to this (pretty clearly evident) allegorical reading, the movie isn’t about marriage, not really. It’s about God (Bardem) and his main creation, Earth (Lawrence), who are figuring out how to get along with each other when an onslaught of those pesky humans begin to arrive — Adam and Eve (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), Cain and Abel (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), early Christian disciples (Kristen Wiig) and, eventually, war-mongering and environment-neglecting hordes who precipitate an apocalypse.
It’s heady stuff, in other words.
Yet in the face of such rich (and pretty clearly evident — did we mention that?) metaphors, many essays have been asking … less important questions. Rather than wrestle with the film’s spiritual and environmental ideas, they’ve taken “mother!” to task for such literalist flaws as why a poet would have so many people in his house, why the film contains so little subtext (!), why Aronofsky thinks he’s God and even how Jennifer Lawrence would be able to redecorate without visiting a home-restoration store. I mean.
One might be expected to love or hate “mother!”; it’s a film built to polarize. Takedowns are inevitable. But to never even mention words like Jesus, Genesis, apocalypse or history in an assessment — not to even bother engaging with the movie on its own global-biblical terms — seems rather glaringly to dodge the point. One trade newspaper labeled “mother!” an “elevated horror movie.” Which is a little like calling “Hamlet” a “fun play about parents and children."
I’m not here to try to convince anyone to see “mother!,” though as anyone in my personal orbit can annoyedly attest over the past few weeks, I do think every responsible citizen should; it’s a chance to watch a daring artist in his prime offer a grand view of where we came from and where we’re headed. Nor do I want to give a detailed critical defense of the movie, though I think some very worthy writers will.
But I do think all this context is important, because it says something about the broader cinematic moment. If some of the above social-allegorical details remind you of another talked-about (if far more commercially successful) movie from 2017, they should. “Mother!” shares a number of commonalities with “Get Out,” the Jordan Peele-directed phenomenon from last winter, soon to be revived in a boundless Oscar campaign. As with “mother!,” “Get Out” also employs pulp excesses and genre conventions to tell a deadly serious story about an abiding crisis — in that case, of course, the treatment of African Americans at the hands of white people in this country.
Like “Get Out,” “mother!” is savvy in how it implicates its audience. Namely — subtly. It casts its criticism at a few highly externalized villains, and has them engage in some familiarly outrageous and Expressionistic cinematic acts. The whole enterprise is meant to make us feel like we’re watching from a safe remove. That is, until later on, when at dinner or at work or at some other unsuspecting point after we’ve left the theater, it begins to dawn: “The people doing these terrible things are us."
Another example of this emergent category — maybe call it genre-of-meaning cinema, or just the “director hector”? — is soon set to arrive. On Oct. 20, A24 will open “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” the new movie from Yorgos Lanthimos, director of “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster.” Lanthimos, a Greek national who lives in England, was an early practitioner of this form of fun cinematic chastisement, using genre smoke-and-mirrors to hold up a social mirror.
This is, thrillingly, where we are in contemporary pop culture. No longer are works like “Dune" obliquely telling of the Suez Canal crisis, as Frank Herbert’s classic novel did, or “Star Wars” offering a genteel look at foreign affairs through cartoonish Stormtroopers and huggable Ewoks. What this kind of genre filmmaking does (you can probably also add recent Emmy winner “The Handmaid’s Tale” to the list) is make comments brashly and boldly, mixing blood and gore into its batter of ideas and criticisms. This is PBS-level social-mindedness, but by way of the midnight movie.
These movies’ unwillingness to absolve their audience is also a crucial feature separating them from earlier work. Where most genre parables from previous eras were about remote news events, holding leaders and famous figures to account, these filmmakers are all about the people watching the work —they’re aiming their cannons right at their customers. "Get Out,” “mother!” and “Sacred Deer” aren’t interested in connecting their stories to some removed historical event so we can chew it over in restaurants and feel good about our enlightened-observer status. They want to excoriate us right there in the theater for participating in that event. Genre-of-meaning cinema never lets its viewers off the hook.
These baroque touches, somewhat counterintuitively, actually further this cause. The movies use (some would say go overboard with) genre stylization as a distractive technique, a way of Trojan Horse-ing into our brains a problem we might not otherwise let in. For all their provocative strokes, it would be a mistake to say that Peele, Aronofsky and Lanthimos are hitting us over the head with the metaphor. To the contrary -- they’re hitting us over the head with the movie. Which makes us not notice the metaphor until it’s lodged in deep.
At least that’s the intent. Not all have achieved it equally. The reactions to “Get Out” and “mother!” are as polar as you’ll find, both with critics and consumers, who have embraced the former and rejected the latter. Why two movies with such similar approaches have met with such divergent fates is a tricky issue, and one I and some (less annoyed) colleagues and friends have been trying to puzzle out. Certainly one can point to the usual factors like filmmaker brand and stars’ fan bases to make one case or another, or to the fact that the narrative trajectory of “mother!” is especially designed to keep us off-kilter. There’s also the idea that “Get Out” ends with vindictive justice and “mother!” with, well, something bleaker.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if a chunk of this may be due to the palatability of the respective messages. When it comes to race, many of us who are not in a minority readily acknowledge the problem — and quickly exempt ourselves from it. “It’s a terrible plague, but I’m not a racist so this movie doesn’t apply to me,” would I suspect be the candid reaction by many white people to “Get Out” if you really pressed us on it. (Whether this statement is at all accurate is a separate matter.)
L.A. Times critic Justin Chang and film reporter Jen Yamato discuss the furor over Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing film “mother!”
Climate change feels a little different. While we blame corporations for pollution and government leaders for regulatory rollbacks, most of us are aware on some level that, unless we’ve swore off the modern world, we’re part of the problem. And being confronted with the consequences of that problem as brazenly as Aronofsky has us doing can be tough to swallow. It might even — ducking for cover here — make it uncomfortable for some journalists to write about.
(This, by the way, seems like the risk of the new genre-film seriousness. Sure, these movies makes escapism relevant in ways it has rarely been before. But the films also strike a lot closer to home, and thus can be harder to embrace. At least at the beginning, anyway --- “mother!” over the coming months and years could well grow into a cult phenomenon, beloved by a hardcore group precisely because of its mainstream rejection. We’ll see.)
Since “mother!’s” box-office cratering last weekend, industry pundits have asked if Paramount would have been wiser to platform the film — release it at first in a handful of theaters and let the buzz build from there. I don’t know the right answer here. Would the movie have earned more money if it was discovered slowly, via word of mouth? Or dropped on us, as it was, in a blitz of billboards and TV ads?
But the subtext of the question is telling, especially as we enter an era of more genre seriousness: When you have a message this scabrous, not everyone may be ready to deal with it all at once.
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