The box office this weekend was one mother of a wakeup call for mother!.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, an art-house horror project starring Jennifer Lawrence, drew fewer moviegoers than it might have hoped. The movie raked in only $7.5 million in the U.S. against a $30 million budget over the weekend. Considering it played in over 2,000 theaters, it’s a disappointing result for distributor Paramount Pictures.
More critically, the audiences that did come out didn’t like what they saw. mother! earned an exceedingly rare F Cinemascore rating from those surveyed who saw the film. (Cinemascore is one of the leading polls of moviegoer interest.) Insofar as a Cinemascore rating represents word-of-mouth, it’s unlikely mother! will have many advocates in the populace convincing others to go see the film.
So what is it about mother! that draws such harsh rebuke and, in turn, some exceedingly positive reviews among the dissent? In short, the film’s problem comes down in three parts: It’s brash, it hinges on an obvious metaphor, and its conclusion is astonishingly audacious.
[Editor’s note: Light spoilers ahead for mother!.]
The first part is likely what audiences are responding to most viscerally: This is not a movie that you’ll enjoy sitting through. It’s loud, bizarre, and uncomfortable. For the first two-thirds, the film shows the lead female (Lawrence’s character, named only in the credits as “Mother”) contend with increasingly rude house-guests entering her immaculately curated home. Much as she begs, guests keep poking around her poet husband’s (Javier Bardem, named only as “Him”) study, painting her walls, and, most unnervingly, sitting on a kitchen counter with a sink that’s not braced.
If the suggestion of all this personal space invasion has you shifting in your chair, imagine watching it. Then imagine the noise of it all, especially later in the film as sledgehammers, explosives, and firearms get involved. There’s nothing quiet or calm about mother!, and sitting through it is a trial in and of itself.
All of that sound and fury is ultimately in service of a pretty weak metaphor one that, if you’ve ever so much as attended a Christian church service, will present itself blatantly within the first 45 minutes of the two-hour film. “Him,” as he is so named, is a stand-in for God; “Mother” is a hybrid of Mother Earth and Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. This becomes painfully obvious when mother’s child is born all coming down to that insane conclusion.
[Editor’s note: Major spoilers ahead for mother!.]
The film ratchets up the ante when that unbraced sink breaks, causing a “flood” of water to wash out all the guests (remember, Aronofsky directed Noah). Him and Mother find peace, and Mother gets pregnant that is, until he writes a new poem that earns Him the adoration of the masses. Those masses show up and begin destroying their home. Because humans destroy nature. Get it? Told you it’s an obvious metaphor.
Once Mother has their child, her husband offers him up to the thousands of people in their home. They soon kill him just like God’s only son was killed by the Israelites in the Gospels and feast on his flesh, in a grotesque imitation of the Catholic sacrament of Communion (where bread is believed to be transfigured into Christ’s flesh). Mother’s response to this is to blow up the whole house, killing everyone except for an immune Him in the process. Then, Him rips Mother’s heart out and uses a gem held inside of it to start the world over again.
Many supporters of mother! think the obvious metaphor is justified by the dazzling, if often brutal, presentation of it. Detractors, on the other hand, argue the story isn’t deep enough to justify such bombast.
Regardless of divided opinions and the relatively small box office mother! dominated the conversation over the weekend, as it likely will continue to do through Oscar season. Whether it can break into the race for Hollywood’s highest honor remains to be seen; if it is, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will have a lot of angry moviegoers’ questions to answer.