A HORROR HOT TAKE
In the lead up to the release of mother! in September 2017, intrigue surrounding Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror film was at an all-time high. The plot description was deliberately vague, the casting was limited but reliable (two Academy Award winners in Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, and two Academy Award nominees in Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), and the trailers alluded to horrific imagery that suggested it was going to be on-par with his previous genre effort, the much acclaimed Black Swan.
I was fortunate enough to see the film at a private media screening where I was entering completely blind and unpersuaded by any of the reviews that would eventually pour out from its London premiere and TIFF screenings. It was a privileged position to be in as what unfolded in front of me did so in the most organically shocking manner, and I remember noting to the studio
reps upon my exit asking for my feedback that this movie “would piss so many people off”.
Evidently, I was correct. I saw the film an additional two more times in the cinema, and both times the surrounding chatter from the other patrons was the same; “What the fuck was that?!” There was anger that the movie didn’t make sense, that it wasn’t the haunted house horror film the trailers pegged it as, that it was a biblical allegory for how the population has raped and tormented Mother Earth. It was a deeper film than people wanted, and whilst I completely understand the confusion going off how the film was marketed, to completely dismiss such a film because it wasn’t as straightforward as people wanted isn’t fair to mother! as a whole.
So many articles following the film’s release pegged it as “the worst movie of 2017” and that critics ripped it to shreds. Whilst there was a number of critics that indeed tear the film a new one - Rex Reed of The New York Observer gave the film zero stars - for it to be technically considered “the worst movie” it would have to be rated much lower than the 69% approval it has received on Rotten Tomatoes; similarly, on Metacritic it sits at a comfortable 75 out of 100 and film survey service PostTrak returned that filmgoers’ satisfaction rate was 51%. Only the infamous CinemaScore of an “F” grade is where “the worst” dubbing can be drawn from, and that can probably be attested to audiences being unprepared for the confronting images Aronofsky delighted in torturing his audiences with.
As I stated earlier, I understand the outcry from mother!’s release. It wasn’t the film it wasmarketed as, but how could you possibly market a film such as this? The surrounding intentional vagueness and the fact that Aronofsky has such films as the aforementioned Black Swan and Requiem For A Dream in his catalogue should have probably been a safe indication that this was never going to be something mainstream audiences could easily enjoy. I’m not saying mother! didn’t misrepresent itself, and I’m not saying audiences should be smarter, but “worst movie ever” is a big call when it’s statistically not true AND if mother! is the worst thing you’re watching, you really need to expand your cinematic horizons because there is much, MUCH worse cinema out there.
A lot of mother!’s criticisms come down to the sheer lunacy of its climactic moments. There’s Jennifer Lawrence being beaten to a bloody pulp, there’s military forces battling frenzied extras who are practicing religious rituals, Kristen Wiig organising mass executions, and, of course, the shocking sequences involving the death and subsequent feasting of a newborn. It’s wild. Even more so due to the fact that the 100-or-so minutes that precede these shocking scenes adopt a more slow-burn mentality, dropping nuggets of biblical references as Lawrence’s distressed housewife comes to grips with the (literal) God complex of her husband, played so masterfully by Javier Bardem.
That leads me to another issue I have with mother!’s supposed bad reputation. The acting. Say what you will about the choice of Aronofsky’s narrative and whether or not you understand or agree with his stance on how we have been mistreating the Earth, but you can’t tell me that any of the actors involved - especially the four leads - deliver a bad performance. If anyone is going to believably evoke a mixture of agitation and warmth, it would be someone as enigmatic as Javier Bardem. Michelle Pfeiffer, who many suggested should have been an award contender off her performance in this, does so much with the simplest pursed lip and vocal snarl, and I dare someone to tell me that Jennifer Lawrence didn’t completely commit to delivering one of the bravest, most emotionally draining performances put to cinema with her turn here. And you want to “reward” her with a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress of the year? Shame, Golden Raspberries, shame.
I feel like it’s the lack of understanding as to what mother! actually represents that has led to so many people dismissing it. If you have seen it and didn’t like it (and tried to watch it again knowing its true nature), that’s fine. But if you have avoided it due to its apparent reputation as a bad movie, I suggest you decide for yourself, and what better time to discover such a genuinely horrific film than during Halloween. The commentary on how we have ruined the only living space we have feels more pertinent than ever and, if nothing else, mother! absolutely comes through on shocking, gory imagery that the horror aesthetics should lap up.