The worst thing about Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ is that we’ve demanded he explain himself
L.A. Times critic Justin Chang and reporter Jen Yamato discuss Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing film, ‘mother!’
It’s garish, messy and confoundingly demented. But the worst thing about “mother!” the polarizing, audacious psychological horror flick from Darren Aronofsky provoking thought and bile galore across the country, is that we’ve demanded Aronofsky explain himself at all.
Is it so surprising that a house burner with that ending earned an “F” CinemaScore exit poll rating from general audiences, those wide-release moviegoers who thought they were buying a ticket to a spooky Jennifer Lawrence flick and instead got a quietly exploding symphonic monstrosity of chaos — “a tour de force of choreographed insanity,” as Times critic Justin Chang aptly described it?
Aronofsky himself couldn’t have been very shocked; he predicted that the masses would turn on his Buñuel-ian Trojan horse of a biblical fever dream, which sees Oscar-winner Lawrence endure an exhaustive marathon of aggressions, both emotionally and physically, in one of the most anxiety-inducing films of the year.
“I’m scared of the CinemaScore,” he confessed to the Times. “There will be agony and ecstasy. I don’t know who will be interested. People who go in without any sense of allegory will miss it. Which is bonkers, because the film goes off the rails.”
He even pre-apologized to the crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere for what they were about to watch.
If Aronofsky were as much of a cipher-provocateur as, say, David Lynch, he might be left alone by the world to wear that “F” CinemaScore like a badge of honor, or proudly pin to his wall reviews like that from New York Observer critic Rex Reed, who hard-panned “mother!” as a “delusional freak show,” “two hours of pretentious twaddle,” and “the worst movie of the century.”
That a film might make a person agonize, empathize, analyze, lol, cringe, or squirm back and forth between visceral modes of processing is testament to the power of cinema, and of art. Really, it’s the point. What filmmaker doesn’t want to move their audience — so long as it’s not out through the exit doors before the last act?
Yet even distributor Paramount Pictures felt the need to defend itself and its $30-million art house horror movie from the angry mobs after it tanked at the box office, taking in just $7.5 million from a perhaps overly optimistic 2,368 theater release. The studio — bless its soul, in a year when even its “Transformers” fivequel underperformed (but earned a B+ CinemaScore) — stood by its “mother!’ auteur, throwing shade at Netflix in the process:
“This movie is very audacious and brave. You are talking about a director at the top of his game, and an actress at the top her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold,” Paramount worldwide president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan told the Hollywood Reporter.
“Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell,” Colligan continued. “This is our version. We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s OK if some people don’t like it.”
Take it as penance for “Ghost in the Shell,” “Monster Trucks” and the far less artful offerings the multibillion-dollar studio will unleash in the future.
“Some people” certainly do not like the tale of a young housewife (Lawrence) slowly unraveling as strangers (Ed Harris, then Michelle Pfeiffer) barge their way into the placid country home she shares with her celebrity poet husband (Javier Bardem).
As I overheard one embittered moviegoer complain in the ladies’ room at the Arclight on opening weekend: “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” She didn’t even make it through the whole thing, she proudly noted. The wonders and horrors she missed in the movie’s final 25 minutes!
Chalk some of the vitriolic reaction up to ticket buyers expecting to see J. Law in a more traditional haunted house horror romp, who left feeling their hearts, minds, expectations and pocket books deeply betrayed. Others were game for the challenge but irritated by the symbolism.
We should worry less about whether Lawrence is a stand-in for our desecrated planet or simply the tortured heroine of a cautionary tale about dating egomaniacal artists, and more about what it means that Aronofsky has had to comment to the point of exhaustion at all.
Because when the makers of an unapologetically intentioned film like “mother!” are forced to dole out meaning and interpretation to quell the angry hordes, we risk losing the intangible alchemy between audience and art created by such a provocation in the first place.
Prompted by the boos at the Venice Film Festival (where it made its world premiere), the positive-skewing but sharply divided reviews (currently at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes), that “F” CinemaScore, and the demand for justification from viewers who’ve braved their way through it, Aronofsky has been tirelessly over-explaining the meaning of “mother!” arguably to his own detriment. “mother!” he has said, is a film “about how it must feel to be Mother Nature.”
Sure, a little guidance can be helpful. But by distilling “mother!” solely into a biblical allegory about climate change and the ills we humans do to planet Earth, the film loses its thread. The metaphor dissolves under interrogation — particularly when “mother!” also serves up a buffet of other fertile ideas.
If publicly defending his art only digs an artist deeper into a hole of his own making, what was the point of stepping boldly to begin with?
When guest moderator William Friedkin (also a member of the rarefied “F” CinemaScore club, thanks to 2007’s “Bug”) grilled Aronofsky over his intentions and personal beliefs at a Directors Guild Q&A on Sunday, the exchange reportedly took on a life of its own: “Do you believe in God?” he asked Aronofsky in a wide-ranging conversation described as “tense” and “insane” by guests in attendance.
“Do you believe in possession?” retorted Aronofsky, whose pre-”mother!” films have queried similar themes of religion and human consequence, most obviously 2014’s “Noah” and 2006’s “The Fountain.”
It is natural, ideal even, to emerge from a perplexing piece of film like “mother!” with questions that lead to conversations, and conversations that lead to deeper understandings of life, faith, war, humanity, the world, art, inspiration, unbraced sinks, and how exactly one should deal with a flood of unwelcome house guests tearing up the wallpaper.
Beyond the “mother!” kerfuffle, it’s been shaping up to be a banner year for being uncomfortable at the movies. And we should look inward — or to each other, or to film critics! — for ways in which to process these profound distresses.
For example: The deliberately mis-titled crime tale “Good Time,” starring Robert Pattinson and directed by the Safdie brothers, is anything but, and arguably intended to be even more unpleasantly and viscerally disturbing than “mother!”
Soon Colin Farrell and “The Lobster” director Yorgos Lanthimos will arrive in theaters with “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” another furiously disquieting masterwork of a subgenre one might call discomfort porn, if only there was pleasure to be had in the unease.
Book a triple feature into theaters with the new Aronofsky and see the real art hounds descend, hurtling toward the promise of feeling their souls shaken up and placed back in their shells after two hours in the dark. Ideally, they’ll have only the sparest of answers to cling to as they sort out the aftermath themselves.