Why mother! is the most challenging and effective horror film of the year
Warning: TONS of spoilers below…
In 2006 maverick director Darren Aronofsky released his metaphysical, messy and absolutely spellbinding allegorical science fiction drama The Fountain and it was met with polarizing response. I remember seeing it opening night. With its hypnotic, majestic Mogwai and Clint Mansell score (which has been imitated to death by other composers ever since), alarming visuals (sculpted by squirting various liquids into other liquids), challenging structure, bizarre allusions to Eastern religion, philosophies, Catholicism, time travel, Aztec quests and space yoga and the concept of the female as earth mother and eternal muse, more than half the audience found it laughable. Because when people are amongst other people watching cinema, many of them simply look around to see what the others are doing, how they’re responding. And they – sadly – respond in kind. The magic of cinema is group think. That can be wonderful, with audiences sharing an experience like a hive and feeding off each others energy. But in the case of motion pictures like The Fountain it can be catastrophic. Met with generally negative reviews and public bewilderment, this daring film was left to be loved only by a handful. I was among that handful that was utterly leveled by it. I still am in awe of it and obsessed by it. It’s not just a movie it’s an experience unlike anything else.
Today, The Fountain is a “cult” film. Meaning that, once the smoke cleared and people started catching this so-called “bad” film on their own, in the quiet of their homes, late at night, devoid of the zeitgeist and void of any expectations or colleague distractions, they saw it. I mean, really saw it. Because The Fountain is really a horror movie about refusing to accept death, about having to take the journey we all do when met with the impossible reality of losing someone we love. That loss of control. And then, coming to the realization that we’re also on this same path to dust, no matter how much we know, or how much we resist. And accepting that. That Aronofsky cloaks his simple story in fantastical, impossible visuals and meandering passages of beauty, symbolism and savagery is him just employing the cinematic language he always uses. He did it in Requiem for a Dream, which is a vampire film where the heroin is the parasite, filled with nightmare-fuel visuals but pulsing with a quiet tragedy about hopeless people addicted to hope. He did it in Black Swan, which uses the arts as a malevolent force that decays, erodes and transforms for both the better and worse but is really just a film about a young woman coming of age and rebelling.
And he just did it again in mother!, a movie that is a cousin to The Fountain and, like that movie, likely requires multiple viewings but even more intricately hides its simple meanings within its disorienting narrative, grandiose symbolism and distracting visual palette. Unlike The Fountain, however, which was beautiful, mother! is ugly. It’s hideous. Freakish. It drags you into a Boschian Hell filled with braying human-monsters and ludicrous behaviors and it keeps pushing itself further and further into the ether, defying to to watch it or rather, to endure it. And you do have to endure mother!. It doesn’t want you to love it or even like it. It wants to hurt you. It does this with humor of course and it reminded me plenty of the work of Luis Bunuel, who used absurdity in films like The Exterminating Angel to make us laugh uncomfortably at the sheer shrill madness of what we’re watching while its maker exploits those moments of giddy weakness to push his dark agenda inside our chests, like the mystical rock that Javier Bardem’s oblivious poet Eli pulls out of his defeated wife Grace (Jennifer Lawrence).
mother! has been marketed as a horror movie and it most assuredly is. It’s also simultaneously an extended middle finger to the very notion of genre in any conventional sense. The point of this rant is to cite it as such and to – as the headline suggests – mark it as the best and most important horror film of the year. We’re not going to get into the plot mechanics of the movie, you can read pedestrian synopsis’ anywhere and can read our previous published review here. What I will say is that it’s the most polarizing film I’ve ever seen in a theater, with people yelling at the screen, storming out of the cinema, sitting in shock when the lights flip up and checking their phones to read other critical takes. It’s confrontational and it hates its audience and hates itself. It wants to hurt you and it does, not with explicit gore or sex or idiot plot contrivances or even music. Because there essentially IS no score. No, this is another beast entirely. It’s a work of the darkest and wildest art.
But, what is mother!? Is it an allegory of biblical creation with – as many, including Aronofsky, have alluded – Michelle Pfieffer and Ed Harris’ doubtful guests representing Adam and Eve and Bardem and Lawrence’s country home the newly formed earth? Are the screaming crowds that overrun the home suggestive of the way we as a mass-multiplying people savage the earth and decimate the simple “grace” and beauty of what is our nurturing home? Is it a slam on our rabid and ever-swelling need to elevate false gods? Is it a mutation of Rosemary’s Baby with Lawrence’s unstable pregnant wife at the mercy of Satanic forces?
It’s all of these things and Aronofsky uses the metaphor of the house as a living, breathing organic force of creation and destruction as a mult-tier metaphor. But I think what makes mother! such a magnificent and corrosive horror film is that really, it’s a savage portrait of the filmmaker himself. A confessional of an artist and an indictment of the creative process and how the creator becomes a killer. In mother! Bardem’s supernaturally self-centered poet is so blind to the the gifts he has, of love, of beauty and truth. He has to seek that truth elsewhere. He needs to feed from it from the public. And as he revels in the illusion of love, as he invites more and more strangers and pretenders into his life, real love withers and suffers and eventually burns. And when his life becomes ash, he simply resets the machine. He vows to do it “right” the next time while not apologizing for “what he is”. And start it again he does. And the cycle repeats. Again. And again. And again.
A simple, sad poem to failed marriage maybe? To the destructive nature of art and the folly of the artist? If smack was the monster in Requiem for a Dream, the very act of creation – cosmically or intimately – is the monster in mother!. This is the most dread-drenched, anxiety-inducing and difficult to endure movie ever. It’s a horror film through and through and I’m sickened by the dismissive responses I see surrounding it, especially by my critical brethren who claim to mourn the death of challenging mainstream cinema. mother! is singular. Epic. Personal. This is as challenging, draining and brave a work of art you’ll ever see on-screen and bolder than any other mainstream movie of the year, maybe the decade. It has so many moving parts and it’s a film that demands full immersion and attention. And to hear and read others laughing at it, dismissing it. Like they’re better than it. You don’t get your pals together, go for drinks and watch mother!. It should be seen alone. Then you go find others who have seen it. And you scream and debate. We should bow down to it. Because in a multiplex with giant Thor standees in the lobby and posters for the latest cash-milking ding-dong remake and toy-shucking Star Wars sequel, Aronofsky and his team have managed to sneak one of the most progressive anti-genre movies ever made through the back door to shock and awe and inspire.
You don’t have to love the movie. Again, it doesn’t need or want your love.
But if you say you love movies, you must respect it.