There have been warning signs for quite some time that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! isn’t for everyone. It’s debut at the Venice Film Festival garnered every reaction from boos to high praise, and it soon became clear that the violent nature of the film would absolutely affect viewers’ assessments of the film itself. Then came the dismal opening weekend box office ($7.5 million) and the Cinemascore rating of an F, and mother! instantly became the commercial failure that everyone loves to talk about.
Whether they love it or hate it, everyone is discussing what happened with mother! Even Paramount got in on the action, valiantly defending Aronofsky’s vision and their decision to greenlight the production. Megan Colligan, Paramount’s worldwide president of marketing and distribution, had this to say to The Hollywood Reporter:
“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 her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”
Colligan’s articulate expression of the studio’s frustration at the fickle nature of audiences is a breath of fresh air in an environment where studios rarely address commercial failures. And she has a point! Raise your hand if you’ve heard somebody say they’re sick of watching sequels and remakes this summer, and in the next breath talk about some of the sequels and remakes they just saw in the theater.
Earlier this summer, the internet thinkpieces all revolved around a storyline that Rotten Tomatoes is hurting the film studios because fans won’t see movies with low scores. The battle cry was “moviegoers want to see good movies!” I think it’s more complicated than that. I think moviegoers want to see proficient movies that make them feel good and don’t challenge them. Emoji Movie was destroyed by critics, but it defied all box office predictions. Also, ask yourself this: how many movies did you watch this summer that made a fortune and earned over a 90% score on Rotten Tomotoes where you walked away scratching your head at what the fuss was all about? The scores are becoming more and more extreme to the point that everything is either a disaster or a masterpiece. There is now an absolute standard for “good movie” and it’s homogenized generic fare, working off of a script written by a committee and modified in reshoots by replacement directors. It’s no wonder that there isn’t room anymore for movies that aren’t for everyone.
Cinemascore surveys a small group of moviegoers on opening weekend and uses the data to determine an overall audience score. Most movies (even bad ones) score in the A or B range (all of the Transformers movies earned anything from solid As to B+s). It isn’t surprising that general moviegoers sometimes give good scores to bad movies and vise-versa. In fact, my rule of thumb for horror movies lately is that a high Tomatometer combined with a low Cinemascore will likely mean that I’m going to love the movie (as evidenced by The Witch and It Comes at Night). With that said, it is extremely rare for a movie to earn an F. I believe that mother!‘s score reflects my theory that audiences are conditioned to feeling comfortable in theaters, and that their reaction was to the feelings the film evoked rather than the quality of the film itself. Can we really be surprised that a generation of moviegoers who have gone decades without being challenged by film are reacting to mother! in this manner? It makes me wonder, what kind of Cinemascore would Apocalypse Now earn if it were released in theaters for the first time next weekend?
While media outlets like to call the critical response to mother! mixed, I would argue that the critical response has been largely positive. The film currently has a 69% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and an even higher aggregate score from the site’s top critics (72%). Even more interesting is the fact that some of the more measured negative reviews don’t question the artistry of the film. For example, Chris Agar of Screenrant stated: “mother! is an ambitious work that bucks traditional storytelling techniques with its aspirations, but its approach will not be for all moviegoers.” Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon said, “The skill that went into crafting mother! is undeniable … but so is its unpleasantness, its aggressively nihilistic and misanthropic ugliness.”
However, most of the negative reviews contain such angry and visceral reactions that they end up aiming for baseless insults rather than critiquing the quality of the work itself. Michael Heaton of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said, “It would be difficult to find a filmmaker who has more contempt for his audience. He shouldn’t be trusted with either a keyboard or camera, much less the budget to make a movie.” Keep in mind that Heaton is making these statements about a director who has repeatedly received numerous nominations and wins for the highest awards in filmmaking. James Luxford of the Metro (UK) said, “It’s a film maker seeing how far he can push you, not realising that the line was passed about half an hour in.”
But what if Aronofsky does realize that the line was passed? What if it was his intention to pass it? In fact, numerous critics praised mother! for doing just that. Critic Eric D. Snider said, “It’s thrilling to see a major filmmaker and major movie stars explore [these ideas] so boldly and with so little regard for convention.” The point is: when some people are loving the film for it’s commitment to crossing the line and never looking back, and others are hating the film for the exact same reason, the movie can’t possibly be objectively bad. We have been studying film as art since the medium first began, and art is supposed to provoke thought and discussion. Those who skewer the film (or insult the filmmaker) are participating in that discussion whether they know it or not.
Although we’ve become more and more conditioned to seeing explicit violence in horror films, we are hardly ever shocked by what we see in this day and age. The reason for this is that “buckets of blood” isn’t always enough to really get inside of a viewer’s head. The greats like Hitchcock and Kubrick knew this, and they psychologically manipulated viewers in other such ways to evoke a visceral response. While Aronofsky certainly uses more on-screen gore than his predecessors, I believe that the reason critics and viewers are responding so wildly to mother! is because this time it’s a technically proficient filmmaker challenging them with these images, and the images are representing ideas which are uncomfortable to explore. I can guarantee that the faux-horror gore that American Horror Story peddles every week is just as over-the-top as any scene in Aronofsky’s body of work. But AHS can’t punch you in the gut like Aronofsky because the violence is surface level.
The greatest compliment one could pay a filmmaker is the statement that he or she is still thinking about the movie days after seeing it. Commentary- both good and bad- are cropping up all over the web saying just that. The deep thought and discussions over some of mother!‘s controversial scenes would not be happening if the scenes weren’t filmed with technical precision and staged with subtext and allegory in mind. I’ve scene every gory Saw movie ever made, but I can’t recall the details of a single scene of violence and I’ve never heard discussions about their symbolism and use of metaphor.
Before the internet and the age of instant opinions, movies had time to breathe. Films like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Blade Runner had time to breathe and time to be digested. Sure, they were also hated. But people didn’t stop thinking about them. And as time passed, more people started to watch them; and more and more critics started to praise them. Now, they’re known as some of the greatest works of filmmaking of all time. Would Stanley Kubrick have been able to make movies in the current environment of box office absolutes and guaranteed comfort at the theater?
During the same weekend where mother! was declared dead and it’s director was called pretentious by angry critics and moviegoers, It raked in another $60 million (accumulating a two-week domestic total of $218 million). And it’s no wonder. The movie retells a 30 year old story while taking no chances, offending no one, and resorting to the same “shakey-head shout” gag that spooks audiences just enough to come back for the sequel. The only way it could be more derivative and mainstream is if the kids led Pennywise out of the sewer tunnels with a trail of Reese’s Pieces. And I get it! People should be able to have some good clean fun at the movie theater. There should be mainstream movies at the cinema. But why can’t we have both?
What does it say about the climate of the movie industry that it’s such a big deal that Paramount decided to make mother!? The film’s budget was a relatively modest $30 million, and there’s no way the studio expected the movie to be a breakout financial hit. Kudos for them for putting money aside to make a challenging movie with a single artistic vision. In an age where studios spend $100-$250 million on tentpole releases, some of which hit the box office dead on arrival, is it really so shocking that Paramount was brave enough to attempt something different at a fraction of the price? The greatest movies ever made all took some kind of risk, and they became legendary because they were the first of their kind to try something that had never been tried before. I’m not saying mother! is one of those movies, but the film represents the kind of risk-taking that will lead to the next great releases. If we truly want diverse offerings at the theater, we need to encourage this kind of thinking by the major film studios.
When politicians and news television personalities pontificate freedom of speech, Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s depiction of Voltaire’s philosophy is often cited: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While the financial reaction to mother! is clearly more of an issue of supply and demand rather than an issue of freedom of speech, there is a clear parallel between Voltaire’s idea and the critical reaction to mother!. Even if it’s gross or uncomfortable or we don’t like it personally, shouldn’t we still praise the studio for taking such a risk? Shouldn’t we defend a marketplace that allows for a variety of movies for a variety of tastes at the multiplex? It’s fortunate that Paramount is standing behind mother! because they could have easily learned the wrong lesson from this experiment. In an industry where exponential earnings and mainstream acclaim decide the fate of all movies, we ought to stand behind Paramount for refusing to apologize for its artistry. Because if we don’t, we’ll never see anything like this again.