Darren Aronofsky has never been interested in making feel-good movies. With Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain and Black Swan he seems to aim for nausea, anxiety attacks, and nightmares. His latest effort dives deep into the surreal storytelling, horror tropes, and religious themes that have made him a critical darling. Many critics have been raving over mother!, an allegorical horror film that boasts Jennifer Lawrence as its lead. But mainstream audiences aren’t buying it.
Heady off festival buzz, there was some speculation that mother! might best the far more traditional horror flick IT for the top of the domestic box office this week. Lawrence’s offering came nowhere close, but did manage the number three spot. Yet mother!’s underwhelming box office isn’t the worst news for this deeply strange studio movie.
To the surprise of no one who has seen it, mother! got an F Cinema score. This means public audiences polled for whether the movie met their expectations, resoundingly said no. And frankly, that’s understandable. The trailers for the movie suggest it’s going to be a relatively straightforward cult thriller.
But that description just scratches the surface of Aronofsky’s latest, which is so chock full of mysteries and metaphors that critics and fans are in a roiling brawl over what the movie is really about. How was any marketing team expected to capture all that in a 2-minute spot?! Beyond that, mother! is not a movie made to be enjoyed. It’s made to make you itch with anxiety, twinge with tension, and twitch with dread. So if you come out and are asked if you enjoy this movie, very few of us would giddily vote yes.
Someone: What'd you think of Mother!?— Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) September 13, 2017
Cinema scores aren’t a matter of quality, but of reaction. And mother! is eliciting strong ones. In the comments on his review, critic Matt Singer found a wealth of reported negative reactions and walkouts.
the couple in front of me were all over each other at the beginning and completely like almost backs turned separated by the end— john:pig in the city (@momjohn1) September 17, 2017
A flood of one-star audience reviews hit Rotten Tomatoes. As of the time of writing this post, there are already 54 pages of audience reviews, many very negative.
Having seen mother!, I understand the strong reactions. I get the walk outs. If you went to see this movie expecting a sexy horror film starring Jennifer Lawrence, you probably did have an awful time. Critics had a bit of an advantage. Not only were most more familiar with Aronofsky’s work than the average moviegoer might be, many of us were given a kind of key to unlocking the film’s meaning when we sat down at press screenings. It was a prayer card.
Personally, I was intrigued by mother! not so much by its artful posters or sultry trailer, but by the bizarre buzz that arose out of its Toronto International Film Festival debut. I had colleagues who wouldn’t answer the simple question: did you like it? Instead, they talked of its bounty of metaphors, recounting how no two people agree on what its message is. And I know this will sound pretentious and obnoxious: but yes. Once I saw it, everyone wanted to know what I thought. Did I like it? And I still don’t know how to answer that. What I can tell you is mother! is a unique and daring cinematic experience, and no, not a pleasant one. But I doubt it intends to be.
While some are calling it genius, others are declaring it the worst movie ever made. And it’s fascinating how this film has immediately been declared so many conflicting things: a masterpiece, an abomination, brilliant, blasphemous, epic, incoherent. That’s a thrilling polarization to see on a studio movie opening across 2,000 theaters. Short term, this is probably bad news for Paramount as a movie this controversial won’t likely bring them many big wins come award season. (Though I’m calling it now, Michelle Pfeiffer will be a frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.) But for the legacy of the film, all this fighting, fury, and debate will cement mother! as one of Aronofsky’s and Lawrence’s most important works.
For what it’s worth, Paramount is standing by the film, making no apologies for one particular spoiler that has sparked outrage. Paramount worldwide president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan told THR:
“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. Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”
This last sentence here is really important: It’s okay to not like mother!
Of course there’s a distinct smugness emerging on Film Twitter that’s regarding all who don’t love this movie as morons. It’s a provocative movie that purposefully plays against the rules. So it will not—by definition—be for everyone. And that’s fine. You can love it, you can hate it. But when sharing your opinion either way, let’s remember that art’s ability to be read a bunch of different ways is one of its greatest virtues. So let’s focus on the art, and not act like mother! is some sort of litmus test of cool or intelligence.
Our official review of mother! will post later this afternoon. There’s a lot to digest.