Love It or Hate It, mother! (2017) is the Most Important Major Studio Release of the Year

Darren Aronofsky’s latest go-for-broke provocation, mother!, has already been in wide release for two full weekends, an eternity in the context of internet time. Its already slight box office returns are dwindling; the hot takes have cooled; film culture is desperate to move onto discussing the next big budget comic book adaptation or (I’m not kidding) half-a-year-early rounds of Oscar predictions, already framing mother! discussions in the rearview. It’s been a fun couple of weeks of wildly varied reactions to this aggressively divided work, though. From the rapturous praise to the horror stories of angry, vocal walkouts during the film’s violently bonkers third act, mother! demands discussion & analysis in the way crowdpleaser comedies, superhero action epics, and computer-animated cartoons about talking animals typically don’t. Even the Swampflix crew is harshly divided on mother!‘s merits as a feature film. It’s one of my favorite new releases I’ve seen all year, but Boomer was much less impressed when he reviewed it last week, writing “It aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars; it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.” However, the important part of that divide is not whether we were individually positive on the film’s handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across. The important thing is recognizing the significance of that “aim for the moon” ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape. mother! may ultimately make more enemies than it does dollars during its theatrical run, but it’s the most important Major Studio release of 2017 for its ambition alone.

As Boomer wrote, “Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come.” That kind of stick-with-you effect is invaluable in our disposable media landscape, which is essentially dominated by Superhero of the Week action spectacle & streaming platform “content” binging. Personally, I was much more unambiguously positive on my experience with mother! than Boomer, but just as mentally preoccupied with how it lingered with me after I left the theater. I spent most of my day after watching the film reading over every scrap of impassioned analysis I could find, positive & negative, and was happy to discover that most of the ways I had engaged with the film were already represented in the cultural conversation. I’m of the firm opinion that subtlety is highly overvalued in modern criticism, so I’m tickled that the film is fully committed to its crash course on the entirety of the Bible and (intended or not) Aronofsky’s self-flagellation over the Artist-Muse power dynamics of his own romantic partnerships, a pitch black act of self-analysis that paints the Artist type as much more of a monster than the divine role of the Biblical analogy. I’m also a huge sucker for what I call the “Party Out of Bounds” narrative, where house guests & partygoers are supernaturally compelled to remain in an obviously toxic social environment when it’s clear from frame one that they should leave immediately. On top of his indulgence in religious, environmental, and uncomfortably personal allegories, Aronofsky also uses mother! to experiment with traditional stage play surrealism. Recalling the artificial environments & darkly funny social horrors of surrealist masters like Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Luis Buñuel, mother! is on a very basic level a surreally menacing comedy about the horror of having guests over who will not leave, a sentiment I identify with more than I likely should admit. The exciting thing is that all of these tactics & influences have been constantly picked at like scabs over the last two weeks of cultural conversation, along with feminist readings of how its narrative mirrors classic texts like Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and real life horrors like the public’s gendered abuse of Jennifer Lawrence when her nude photos leaked without her consent in 2014. The only person out there limiting the endless possible discussions of mother!’s themes & means is the one person no one should have ever asked: Darren Aronofsky.

For some ungodly reason, several interviewers have asked Aronofsky to explain the (aggressively unsubtle, already blatant) Biblical & environmentalist allegories that drive the film’s lyrical sense of narrative. It was idiotic for him to oblige. I can see how after a week of befuddled theater walkouts & wildly mixed reviews, he’d be tempted to explain himself for those confused or angered by the film, but mother! works so much better as conversation starter without the guiding hand of its creator. Following a summer where many films have (supposedly) financially died by the hands of low scores from critical aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, movie studios have been very itchy over negative criticism. Low percentages on the dreaded Tomatometer have been a hot topic for studios desperate to explain why “sure thing” releases like Baywatch & The Dark Tower died on the vine (despite, you know, the fact that they looked awful before they were ever reviewed), but what hasn’t been fully dealt with yet is how a high Tomatometer score isn’t necessarily a sign of quality or substance either. Safe, crowdpleasing films from the MCU, Star Wars, and their Disney-adjacent ilk are much likelier to secure a high Tomatometer score than an ambitious, divisive film that splits critics. We need to put more of an emphasis on celebrating aggressive artistic visions that divide opinion and spark contentious conversation. mother!‘s 61% on the Tomatometer means so much more to me than a 90+% approval for safer bet releases like The Big Sick or Spider-Man: Homecoming (both of which we also reviewed positively, mind you). Just because 98% of critics had some degree of a positive reaction to Kumail Nanjiani’s heartfelt, post-Apatow romcom doesn’t mean the film has lingered in their minds the way mother!’s “aim for the moon” ambitions will. Aronofsky would benefit greatly from abstaining from damage control interviews on that critical divisiveness, encouraging people to remain split on his thematic intent & aggressive filmmaking craft. mother!‘s middling Tomatometer score should be a badge of honor for the director, even more so than its already infamous F CinemaScore (which it shares with similarly genius works like The Box & Bug).

mother!‘s thematic complexity, critical divisiveness, and conversation-sparking ambition make it an exciting work to engage with, but they aren’t the reason why the film is culturally important. There were plenty of films released domestically this year I would categorize as just as ambitious & thematically rich as Aronofsky’s work: We Are the Flesh, The Lure, Your Name., Good Time, Get OutRawKuso, etc. What makes Aronofsky’s film important in the context of these admirable go-for-broke works is that it was released & supported by a Major Hollywood Studio. In fact, Paramount Pictures has been infinitely better than Aronofsky himself in handling the negative press over the anger & confusion his film has inspired. In addition to prominently quoting the negative reviews in its advertising, they’ve issued the following statement: “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 of her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. […] We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.” Fuck yeah. In the current cinematic climate, there aren’t nearly enough major player Hollywood studios taking chances like this. Young, promising directors are being snatched up for movie-by-committee superhero pictures before they’re even given a chance to find their own voice (a fate Aronofsky narrowly escaped himself). The most invincibly successful film franchise in the world, Star Wars, is afraid to take risks with directors like Phil Lord & Chris Miller, replacing them with well-behaved, personality-free workmen like Ron Howard at the last possible minute (when that’s who they should have hired in the first place if they just wanted more of the same). Nearly every major release feels like it’s tied to a pre-existing property with a built-in audience, banking on familiarity to coast by as a mild delight. Paramount’s defiant embrace of mother!‘s critical & financial doom is a huge deal. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, Kubrick films like The Shining & 2001: A Space Odyssey (which were heatedly divisive in their time as well) being released in our current don’t-rock-the-boat climate where every movie has to sell billions worldwide & please 90% of its audience to be considered a success. Paramount daring to release mother! in its current, artistically unmitigated form to such a wide audience and then standing by that decision in the face of critical backlash is a modern movie industry miracle.

Last year, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise similarly applied Buñuelian sentiments to a “Party Out of Bounds” story turned apocalyptically violent in a blatant allegory about the evils of modern consumerism. It’s a great film and just as worthy of a descendant of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel as mother!, but it barely played in theaters before being quietly dumped on Netflix & promptly forgotten. By contrast, mother! is a tonally, visually, and thematically challenging work domestically released almost as wide as a typical by-the-books romcom or superhero action flick (which, again, we generally enjoy as well). That’s an increasingly rare occurrence in the 2010s. Whether you’re as enraptured with its audacity as I am or as conflicted over its allegorical buffoonery as Boomer was, you have to recognize mother!‘s value as a Major Studio risk. I sadly doubt it will change the industry in any significant way, but it’s still a damn important agenda statement from a Major Studio system player, who somehow handled this false crisis of critical division even better than the artist they were supporting.

-Brandon Ledet

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