Audiences are hating Mother!, the latest thriller from the auteur director Darren Aronofsky.
The film received a rare “F” grade from the research firm CinemaScore, which assesses audience reaction to a film before it’s released widely. Mother! then flopped when it opened to theaters in the US last weekend, earning just $7 million—well short of its projections.
By most measures, Mother! was an incredible failure for Paramount Pictures, the studio that took a risk and financed Aronofsky’s project. But that’s exactly why you need to see it.
Three days after seeing it, I still don’t know if I “liked” or “disliked” the film. I have to think about it more. But I do know that, regardless of my final opinion on its merits, I appreciate that a major Hollywood film distributor agreed to bankroll such an audacious film and sell it to general audiences. In a sea of unnecessary sequels and reboots and cynical franchise grabs, it’s refreshing to see a studio actually take a risk on something different.
Paramount had little choice but to market the film as a psychological thriller in the vein of Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan, but Mother! is decidedly not that. It might start off that way, but it quickly evolves into another beast entirely.
Without spoiling the “twist” of the film (less of a twist and more of a central allegory that becomes clearer and clearer), Mother! stars Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence as a nameless young woman who lives in a beautiful countryside home with her much older husband, a poet with severe writer’s block (Javier Bardem, in yet another deliciously creepy role).
When guests start arriving at their serene home, things get weird. Very, very weird.
Critics of the film are arguing that it amounts to little more than an ego trip by the director, “two hours of pretentious twaddle,” according to one especially harsh review. Perhaps worried that his film would be misinterpreted, Aronofsky has agreed to a number of interviews since the film was released on Friday, describing some of the metaphors in detail (click at your own risk of spoilers).
It’s not all hate, though. The film boasts a fairly solid 70% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. That’s thanks to positive reviews, including some from influential critics—but they too seem to disagree. Christopher Orr at the Atlantic declared it “a Stunning, Ferocious Head Trip,” while A.O. Scott at the New York Times quipped, “don’t listen to anyone who natters on about how intense or disturbing it is; it’s a hoot!” Mother! has made a mockery of our consensus-driven approach to cinema, in which there is sometimes a division between critics’ responses and box office success, but rarely such division among the reviews.
Many Redditors and others on social media have been far more favorable than the CinemaScore rating would suggest. But in any case, the dismal box office haul suggests the movie is not landing for audiences. Film writer Mike Ryan pointed out that CinemaScore doesn’t necessarily measure a film’s quality, but rather what audiences are expecting. In the case of Mother!, they got something they were totally not expecting, thus the “F” grade.
Even being familiar with Aronofsky’s filmography, Mother! wasn’t what I expected. Aronofsky has always used elements that are mystical and surreal, with characters trapped in their own tortuous realities. Mother! feels like a terrible dream you had once when you were younger—one you thought was about one thing but realize several days (or possibly years) later that it was actually about some other thing.
The film disturbed me enough that I immediately went home and read other film writers’ interpretations of the movie—something I usually try not to do within the first few days of seeing a film so that I can gauge my own thoughts. This time, I wanted to learn more about what the hell I just watched.
In that way, Aronofsky’s film has already succeeded. It’s a difficult movie, and one you won’t soon forget. Even if you hate it, you probably won’t be able to stop thinking about it. Ultimately, we need more films like Mother!, even if they’re bad. In today’s Hollywood climate, an interesting failure is actually a triumph.