There are risky horror movies, and then there’s mother!. Marketed as a home invasion thriller with a spiky psychological twist, it’s hard to imagine anyone was prepared for the unconventional horrors that director Darren Aronofsky was readying to toss at unsuspecting viewers. To hear the movie’s chaotic trailers tell it, mother! simply looked like a Rosemary’s Baby updated for 2017: a young couple lives an idyllic life tucked away in the rural countryside, the man a frustrated writer, the woman a devoted wife and caretaker. Enter Ed Harris, an odd, ill man over-curious with the writer’s work who manages to secure an unwelcome stay in their home and thanks them by inviting his brash, often tipsy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to visit him as well.
There are those moments of supernatural interference, as Jennifer Lawrence’s character (referred to only as Mother) pokes and prods at what we can only presume to be a home with a living heart of its own. But then? All hell breaks loose, as Aronofsky sets the audience on an hour long kinetic journey into madness, as invaders of every kind begin to force themselves into the home that Mother has worked so hard to create. And what was initially a horror curio of haunted-house thrills morphs into a living nightmare governed only by dream logic. It’s audacious, it’s divisive, it’s ambitious—it’s already the most hated movie of the year.
[WARNING: Mild spoilers for mother! ahead.]
mother! is the kind of movie primed for walkouts. It’s a wolf in creepy sheep’s clothing, bearing an intriguing (if menacing) trailer and a certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. No doubt horror fans, those who turned out in droves to see It just last week, have already been beguiled to step into the theater by the movie’s clever sell and glittering cast. And while it shares an R-rating with last week’s box office sensation, It is kids’ stuff compared to mother!, the kind of movie that demands you stumble out of the theater with your brain unspooled, unsure if you’d accomplished something by remaining in your seat for the film’s full run-time. (In the press screening I attended, a notable portion of critics stepped out of the theater.)
That isn’t to say it’s not a good film: mother! is a movie that’s proving already to be a kind of think piece machine, so stuffed with themes and strange imagery as to allow pretty much any interpretation of the film to fly. Is it a simple allegory for climate change and environmental destruction? Absolutely. Is it a pseudo-feminist fairytale about the way men drain their muses for the purposes of their own selfish art? Definitely. Is it a belabored deconstruction of a religious parable? As with all of Aronofsky’s movies, the biblical symbolism is here in droves. There are those that will argue it exists only for shock value, but Aronofsky, though happy to elicit any strong reaction from the audience, positive or negative, really doesn’t seem to be trolling us. Or at least, he doesn’t seem to be trolling us on purpose.
“I think the movie is punk rock, it’s very provocative,” Aronofsky said when I brought up Anthony Bourdain’s early prediction that it was sure to “upset the fuck out of people.” “It’s the type of film that’s meant to shake people… It’s important when you make a scary movie that you really rock people. That’s the goal. A lot of horror films, they go cute a little bit, they’re not going all the way.” There’s certainly nothing cute about mother!—that’s not an adjective that often comes up when discussing a film that includes the graphic consumption of a baby.
Paramount, who released Aronofsky’s previous (similarly divisive) Noah, took what could only be construed as a massive gamble letting this film hit 2400 screens without so much as a warning label. Risky, certainly, but that too was on purpose.“I think the second half of the film is a crazy, crazy thing that I don’t think audiences want to know what’s going to hit them,” Aronofsky told me when I raised the question of its vague marketing campaign. It seems as though the filmmaker, always a provocateur, has made a movie designed specifically to leave the audience challenged and disgruntled. “It’s the type of film that people will want to take in and explode with it, or they resist.”
Resist seemed to be the name of the game during mother!’s opening weekend, where it nabbed an “F” cinemascore—a rare honor bestowed previously upon odd and misunderstood movies like Lindsay Lohan’s I Know Who Killed Me and Richard Kelly’s beyond weird The Box—and significantly underperformed in its first wide release weekend. It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s lowest box office opening in a starring role since her breakout in Winter’s Bone, and an iffy opening for such a star-studded project.
It’s only fair to say that despite the sizable backlash from audiences, neither of the film’s stars regret signing on to the project. Lawrence has been unshy about labeling the film “a masterpiece” (even if she also informed Aronofsky of his “severe psychological problems” after reading the script for the first time); and co-star Javier Bardem hailed the film as an impressive artistic move: “I was very encouraged to see Darren [Aronofsky] taking this turn… that he would take the chance to really express these themes and issues that he’s worried about or concerned, or interested in, in such an open, honest way without any frame.”
At the film’s NYC premiere just last week, Jennifer Lawrence stepped on stage just before the film began, all smiles in a white tulle dress: “You’re laughing and smiling now,” she noted, “but you’re all going to really hate me in about an hour and a half. So the first thing I want to do is apologize.” It’s a message Paramount might have suggested adding to the movie’s pre-roll, a quick reminder from America’s sweetheart that you’re just about in for one of the more grotesque and assaulting theatrical experiences of the year. And while there was no official warning, that immediate backlash prompted the studio to release a statement that embraced mother!’s divisive reception: “We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if people don’t like it.” Love it or hate it, it seems both Paramount and Aronofsky have gotten their way: “For me,” the filmmaker told me, “[This has] always been the goal. To make movies that inspire conversation.” When it comes to mother!, audiences are sure to be talking for weeks to come.