mother! is undeniably an achievement. A major movie studio funded this wildly ambitious project, filmed it with major movie stars and gave it a wide release. This might be an unparalleled achievement in today’s climate of superhero universes and multi-film franchises built from existing properties. At it’s most basic, superficial level, mother! is at least a creative, stand alone piece, even if it isn’t exactly what I would define as “original.” It’s film with lofty ambitions, a star studded cast and than a little touch of delusions of grandeur, so it should come as no surprise that it has been immensely controversial.
I think the most successful part of mother! is that it will have us talking about it forever, but I have a hard time saying outright, that that is what makes it clever. In fact, I would argue that mother! suffers from thinking it’s a lot more clever than it is.
This film manages to capture perfectly the sensation of a panic attack, and sometimes the feeling of being gaslighted. The shaky cam and this shifting sense of reality triggered a real life headache for me, but I wouldn’t suggest having done it differently. It’s effective even if it is nauseating. Though I was uncomfortable in my seat, I knew Aronofsky was very much intending for me to me. Which is pretty mean-spirited if you think about the fact that I have never once in my life done anything to harm Aronofsky or his loved ones.
I’ve had a couple weeks to stew on this film and I think my biggest complaint is that this this film only works on one level — symbolically. The Biblical symbolism is heavy handed and relentless. It’s a one to one adaptation. This film has no subtext because the subtext IS the text. There’s only one viewing of this film: Javier is God, Jennifer is Mother Earth, the house is Planet Earth and the baby is Jesus etc. You can add other filters to it: Aronofsky as God, it’s actually a metaphor for artistic creation, it’s feminist, it’s misogynist, it’s about anxiety, etc etc but those are just lenses through which to view it. The story doesn’t really work on a surface level- it’s all just symbolism and filters.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou is an allegory film that works much better for me. It functions a fundamental plot basis but it also works beautifully as a nearly one to one retelling of The Odyssey. What I love about this film is how intelligently the adaptation is woven into the story. The symbolism and allusions to Homer’s The Odyssey, feel like rewards when you notice them and put them together. The film operates on both levels with the same about of skill and I am always impressed when a work is able to do this and I think that is why mother! left me feeling disappointed. It seems rather proud of itself for it’s high minded, religious allegory, and Aronofsky himself seems worried people won’t “get it.” He’s spent a shameful amount of time since it’s release trying to “explain” the film, but frankly, it doesn’t need explaining. I would say there were very few people who sat through the whole thing and never once put the allegory together. I firmly believe the uproar surrounding this film has less to do with people not understanding it, and more to do with unmet expectations and individual tastes level.
There are moments in this film, where even I, a person who appreciates when art pushes its arbitrary boundaries, felt as though it had gone too far. There are moments that force you to not just step outside your comfort zone, but to bask in it and I honestly don’t think the film earns the right to do so. So much of this film did not feel earned to me. Things just started happening and you are just supposed to be impressed with the symbolism. Extreme violence happens and I feel as thought I’m being punished for not having walked out of the theater already.
I am still thrilled this got made. We need more experimentation and original (though I’m not sure I think this qualifies as truly original since it’s basically an adaptation of the creation myth) films on wide release. We need more creativity and audacity in cinemas and I think that is were mother! really delivers.
This was a tough sit, and it asks a lot of it’s audience, so it is no surprise to me that audiences gave it an F Cinemascore. It was marketed as a psychological thriller but it’s something even more unsettling than that and I don’t blame audiences for feeling duped. In fact, I don’t blame “average” viewers at all. As someone who really enjoys film and art, I also felt a little duped and disappointed but I think that’s okay.
I’ll end by saying that I’m deeply conflicted. It’s not completely without value, but I didn’t love it. I don’t even think I can say that I liked it. I was captivated while watching it but would prefer to never experience it ever again. I’m also more than a little turned off by people (Aronofsky especially) thinking that this is some brilliant, hyper-intelligent work of art. I think mother! has already secured itself a very interesting place in film history and that we have only just begun a very long dialogue about its merits and failures that will last until the our apocalypse. Hopefully, we won’t have to start all over again.