Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! has gotten a lot of buzz since its September 15th release, and not all of it has been positive. In response to the backlash the film received, Paramount distribution and marketing president Megan Colligan was quoted saying, “We’re really proud of this film, and we’re going to stick with it. It’s big, bold and audacious. We always knew it wouldn’t be for everybody.”
And it certainly wasn’t. While early reviews of the film were generally positive, Mother! went on to obtain an F rating from Cinemascore, cementing the division audiences felt over the movie.
As for me? I went to see Mother! with a group of friends, all of whom gushed about how amazed they were by the film’s complexity and structure. However, I was less than impressed. My jaw was certainly dropped for most of the two hour runtime, but once the credits rolled, I didn’t have that sense of wonder everyone else seemed to. Instead, I was disturbed. I was riled up. And more than anything, I felt cheated. Between the marketing for Mother! and the early praise I had read, I’ll admit that I went in with high hopes. As the film began, Aronofsky had me gripped. I was engrossed in that sweet spot between nervousness and excitement you have during a well-done thriller.
Yet as the movie went on, it became apparent that I was not watching a thriller, but an aesthetically pleasing mess of metaphors. By the time it was over, I was angry. I had been promised a great home invasion horror, only to be left with a pseudo-deep adaptation of Every Bible Story Ever.
Now, my issue is not with Mother!‘s biblical references. My issue isn’t even with the chaotic nature that makes the film feel like a two hour long panic attack. My issue is with the forced, hollow approach to these elements. It isn’t about “not getting it” or “missing the point”, it’s about not seeing the “point” as all that profound to begin with. Mother! doesn’t appear to have much meaning beyond its attempts at depth and complexity. Is the film really thought provoking beyond “spot the biblical reference”?Because Aronofsky doesn’t do much to support the broad claims and comparisons he makes. Creating a film based on bible stories is really just creating a metaphor of a metaphor, and when a film relies solely on its metaphorical significance, it’s left without a leg to stand on.
If the goal of cinema is (as it should be) to connect with an audience, there needs to be something more than dazzle and disturbance. The characters need to serve a purpose beyond unsettling the audience and reinforcing an already apparent message. While art is meant to evoke something from its audience, to only have the goal of doing so is not the mark of a well-done film. Mother! seeks to be complex, but this approach only works when executed with subtlety. Instead, Aronofsky chooses to put the movie’s “depth” at the forefront of every scene, leaving viewers with little to guess at, wonder about, or be surprised by.
It is in the nuances, in the moments that make you go “ohhh,” when there is a reveal and you can go back and see the hints laid out in earlier scenes. This is why It Comes at Night succeeds for me where Mother! failed to. The former leaves you with questions which can be answered by looking into the film’s details. While the latter definitely left me with questions, none of them can be explained within the realm of the film. We know that Jennifer Lawrence is the house, but how? Where does the crystal come from? What exactly is Javier Bardem’s character, other than a poorly concealed metaphor for God and creation? A movie is not complex simply because it leaves you wondering, especially not when there is no origin to go off of. The subtext of Mother! isn’t subtext at all, but blatant allusions to artistry, mother nature, and the Bible.
Which brings me to my other problem with the movie. It is so focused on being about something that I’m not convinced even Aronofsky knew what he was going for. The scope of Mother! deals with everything from creation to being a mother to celebrity culture to (right there at the end) Nazism. The film looks to include so much in its deadly bubble of metaphors that its through-line is unclear. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an ambitious film, but in the case of Mother!, it is so reliant on chaos and alienating its audience that any true meaning falls by the wayside.
When it comes down to it, I find Mother! to be a far better film when taken at face value. As a home invasion story, it works. As a depiction of a failing marriage, it works. It is beautifully shot and crafted. Jennifer Lawrence gives a surprisingly impressive performance as “Mother”. Things only begin to fall apart when looked at too closely, for you’ll find there’s very little at the movie’s core.
So by all means, go see Mother! and enjoy following Jennifer Lawrence down the rabbit hole. Just don’t ask Aronofsky for more than he’s willing to give.