The New Cult Canon: 'Mother!'
Darren Aronofsky's deranged horror allegory may have repelled audiences, but it's perhaps the most audacious studio movie of the current century.
“I don’t want to interrupt. I’ll just get started on the apocalypse.” — Jennifer Lawrence, Mother!
Back at The Dissolve, I wrote an essay called “The CinemaScore F-estival,” which cheekily suggested that a selection of the audience survey metric CinemaScore’s worst-rated films would make for a compelling weekend at the movies. (“You want perplexing subtext? Excessive unpleasantness? Willfully perverse genre experimentation? Downer endings? We’ve got it all and then some.”) At the time, I discovered that five of the eight films to have earned the dreaded “F” score at that point happened to be works I liked: Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, Andrew Dominick’s Great Recession thriller Killing Them Softly, the William Friedkin two-hander Bug, the Aussie extreme horror film Wolf Creek, and Richard Kelly’s sci-fi head-scratcher The Box. With the caveat that CinemaScore’s methodology may be flawed—for one, the audiences rounded up in a suburban multiplex to fill out survey cards are not the same as those who actively choose to see these movies—it’s clear that mainstream audiences rejected these films. As I wrote then:
To me, what these cases reveal about CinemaScore is that it isn’t a metric of merit, but a barometer of comfort, with satisfaction on one end and estrangement on the other.
Four years later, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! also received an “F” CinemaScore, and it almost feels like Aronofsky perversely engineered the film to get it, like a straight-A student who opts to doodle a middle finger with the multiple-choice bubbles on a standardized test. Not that, from the perspective of CinemaScore, he’s an A student– if its test audiences had judged all his other films, his filmography’s grades could have gotten him grounded for a month. He’s been a proud irritant to comfort and satisfaction since 1998’s Pi, which set the stage for a career of expressing psychological deterioration in startlingly visceral terms. The one running dictum in his work—Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah are the others—is that transcendence is not possible without pain, and that pain has to be felt by the audience, too. Every film makes it seem like he’s getting away with something.
Today it seems unfathomable now that Mother! was released by a major studio, Paramount Pictures, only five years ago. Perhaps you could argue that Aronofsky was working off the most franchise-able of all existing IP, the Holy Bible, and could thus peel away $30 million for an allegorical psychodrama about Creation. But the more mundane explanation is that Aronofsky had cast perhaps the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Jennifer Lawrence, and this budget was a small price to pay for maximum wattage. Whatever the case, Aronofsky bought himself the latitude to produce an uncompromising film that’s about, in part, the difficulty of its own making—and the godawful torment of putting it out into the world, too. To quote Ishtar, another studio fiasco turned cult favorite, “telling the truth can be dangerous business/ honest and popular don’t go hand-in-hand.”
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies (and a little TV). While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability.
Set entirely within a large Victorian home in the middle of an edenic nowhere, Mother! doesn’t give a name to any of its characters, the first of several dozen choices and symbols it offers up for interpretation. Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as Mother and Him, a couple dealing with separate hassles: She’s grinding her way through a full renovation of a house once burned to the ground, and he’s a famed poet who’s suffering writer’s block. We see no discernible pathways to the home—no driveway in sight, or even a paved walk-up to the porch—but the place winds up attracting a lot of visitors. First up is Man (Ed Harris), a stranger who claims to be a doctor and earns a night’s stay, mostly by flattering Him’s work. Next is Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who peppers Mother with invasive personal questions that put them at odds. When their grown children (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) turn up yelling about their inheritance, a Cain-and-Abel conflict breaks out between them and Mother has to clean up the mess.
And that’s just for starters. The arrival of rambunctious mourners raises tension in the house, and when Him finally breaks through with a new work, a second and even more chaotic scene shakes the floorboards, not to mention Chekhov’s unbraced sink. Throughout the whole ordeal, Mother never feels like her husband is giving her the support she needs, because he’s either too wrapped up in his process or, more often, pleased with the attention the word awards him for his genius. (Credit Aronofsky for this: His film is at least as self-deprecating as it is self-aggrandizing.) But don’t forget this is a film called Mother!, so in the midst of this increasingly volatile environment Mother experiences a pregnancy and birth. And mom can’t protect her child forever. He eventually has to find his way into the world.
Like few studio movies since, say, Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Mother! practically screams “interpret me” at the audience, though one the film’s pleasures is that not everyone agrees on which prevailing metaphor applies. There are Biblical allusions for sure, but the cycle of life and death on Earth, and the fiery manmade tempest that reduces Eden to ash, could represent climate change. (The house being rebuilt on the same spot where it once was razed suggests what the planet must to do after every extinction-level event.) The most persuasive interpretation I’ve encountered posits Mother! as a personal film about making art and bringing it out into the world, with a little commentary on the side about celebrity and creative partnerships. Him is the artist, Mother his muse, and together their baby is offered to a public that doesn’t handle it with much care, whether they’re critics or entertainment reporters or a test audience in Coral Springs handing out failing grades.
There is a moment of transcendence here, when a breakthrough idea is finally realized. (For Aronofsky, life not only begins at conception but peaks there.) But for as solicitous as Mother! is of interpretations—and for as blessedly malleable it is in accepting all kinds of different readings (albeit none of them neatly)—it’s most exciting as a deranged aesthetic carnival ride. When Harris and a wonderfully sinister Pfeiffer turn up at the house, the film turns into a comic psychodrama along the lines of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the guests exploiting the cracks in their hosts’ relationship. As hordes of strangers arrive, it then shifts into one of those absurdist dinner parties out of a Luis Buñuel film like The Exterminating Angel, except instead of the guests not being able to leave, the host cannot convince them to go. There are hints of Rosemary’s Baby here, too, and the fevered directorial anxieties of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2. (This would be Aronofsky’s 6 1/2.)
Credit Aronofsky for burning down the house with a major studio still inside, though. Mother! would stand out in any era for its go-for-broke audacity, but Hollywood hasn’t come close to attempting another studio film this flagrantly uncommercial in the 21st century, and it’s not as if any big-spending streamers are rushing to fill in the gaps. Aronofsky suggests the pain of putting your baby out in the world, only to see it butchered, and he’s probably not so isolated from public reaction that he couldn’t have anticipated what would happen to this child, too. But the impulse to create persists, and a new house will go up in the same spot where Mother! once stood, with new partners laboring to make it beautiful. “We spend all our time here,” explains Mother. “I want to make it paradise.”
Agree completely and glad to see this post. MOTHER! was unlike anything else we saw that year. I admire DA trying something utterly bonkers.
One of my favorite films of that year; Aronofsky is always someone whose work I look forward to. Whatever he's doing, he's going to swing for the fences and it's always at least interesting. mother! feels like one of those films where its creator had an inspiration they had to get out and even they themselves aren't certain what it 'means' if it can even be said to have a single meaning at all. To be trite, the film is a vibe.