Cinema Dispatch: Holy MOTHER of Pearl!

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Mother! is owned by Paramount Pictures

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

So I guess we’re gonna have to talk about this one again, huh?  It certainly seems that everyone else is getting in on the action with various think pieces about what the movie actually means and how audiences are reacting to it, which… I guess I can’t criticize because I’m currently doing the exact same thing, but I’m still feeling a bit irksome about how much publicity this movie is getting when what I saw really didn’t merit all the hoopla.  Making matters worse is the fact that CinemaScore (a poll of general audience moviegoers) have given the film a rating of F; bringing back the tired argument about how art films are just too GOOD for mainstream audiences to understand.  I mean… sure, I’ve certainly held firmly on one side of that debate in the past (I bring up Michael Bay as often as possible), but after seeing the film itself, I just don’t think this is the one for some of the more snobby among us to lord over the undiscerning masses, because… well if you read my review, you’d know that I am rather close to absolutely hating this film; stopping just short of that due to the technical acumen, the finely tuned tension curve that’s constantly raising the stakes, and Aronfosky’s undoubtedly strong command of cinematic storytelling.  Make no mistake; this isn’t an amateur hour shit show like God’s Not Dead 2 or Incarnate.  This is a phenomenal filmmaker who tried to do something great but I feel has failed in spectacular fashion, and while I do understand the reasoning behind for softening ones opinions about a movie that genuinely tries THAT hard (the story of Icarus is usually seen to be a tragic one), I just… couldn’t.  Too much about this movie is misguided for me to want to give it much of a pass, at least as far as my own feelings on it as I think it’s STILL probably a movie worth seeing at some point even if you ultimately hate it the same way I did.  So I guess that begs the question, what is it that everyone seems to be getting out of this movie, and why do I feel it was done so poorly?

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WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!? – My understanding of the film

So this is where we go into FULL BLOWN SPOILERS for the movie which means you should probably back out now if you haven’t seen the movie or if you REALLY don’t care to… but for some reason want to read my opinion on it I guess?  Whatever, THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING!

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We good?  Alright then!

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So while watching the movie, I mostly focused on the themes of anxiety going on throughout it and thought of the religious overtones as less of an ongoing motif and more of a stylistic choice; the same way that Ouija: Origin of Evil intentionally used grainy filters to further solidify its seventies setting or how Good Time bathed everything in sickly neon lights to enhance the griminess of everything the main character was going through.  It was an interesting little side note in the first half but never felt pronounced enough to be the whole thesis on which the film was hanging on.  Once we get to the second half though, things become a bit more overt with Javier Bardem being an obvious allegory for God (I was thinking he was more of a Messiah considering he never seems to be ABOVE the people who come into the house) as well as the baby being a Christ figure, the ever increasing number of house guests representing all of humanity, and even the ending where the crystal being the apple was made clear… though that was about ALL that was clear in the final moments.  The one that I had the most trouble pinning down though was Jennifer Lawrence’s role as she seems to serve whatever purpose the film needs her to at any given moment; most overtly as the Mother Mary considering she gives birth to the son of Javier Bardem.  Whatever he exact “character” is in this story though, her role is quite clear which is to suffer as much as possible and in doing so the director has put images to screen that I feel simply aren’t justified and destroy whatever message he wants to get across; losing the chance to say something compelling to revel in offensive shock horror.  That’s basically what I got out of this; a religious allegory serving as a stylistic choice for a film about anxiety and stress that eventually overtakes everything and never really amounts to anything.  Now I’ll get into WHY I feel that way about the religious symbolism, but let’s take a moment to look at what everyone ELSE thought about the movie.

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HERE’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED! – The general consensus

So the religious reading is rather overt and was picked up on by critics across the board, though some of them pointed out stuff that I didn’t quite catch in my viewing such as the sink being a parallel to Noah’s Ark.  The biggest thing I’ve gleamed from others in regards to the religious symbolism (something that Aronofsky seems to have confirmed himself) is that Jennifer Lawrence (and by extension the house itself) isn’t a specific Judeo-Christian figure like God, Christ, or Adam and Eve, rather she’s a stand in for Mother Nature; the Earth itself which TECHNICALLY was created by God in like a week, but isn’t really personified or deified in Christianity like it is in say Greek mythology with Gaia.  This also puts the whole film and her suffering in a new light as a definite environmental message can be inferred by the way humanity continuously destroys everything she creates and how it’s all ultimately within her power to destroy (i.e. the EXPLOSIVE ending).  In addition to that, there’s a pretty obvious interpretation of this story as a dissection of the creative process with Javier Bardem’s Poet God being more or less a symbol of egotistical artists who put their work above all else and Jennifer Lawrence serving as a representative for anyone who’s in a relationship with those type of people; almost by necessity having to engage and be a part of the art that their significant other creates.  While I feel it’s a bit on the nose and rather reductionist to compare artists to Gods AND abusers (pretty sure there’s a middle ground there), it’s at least something that I feel is a compelling idea to discuss and looking back on it I feel the movie does a great job with those themes; mostly because Javier Bardem is given the most range of emotion and actions in the movie which gets it across rather well.  You can look at this a number of different ways, but the consensus seems to boil down to three points; anxiety, religion, and environmental destruction, with a bit of the suffering of women in a patriarchal society thrown in for good measure.  Other stuff like the magic drink she keeps chugging (and at one point gets rid of) as well as the thing she finds in the toilet seem much more up for debate and are less clearly pegged, but at least we now have a few concrete ideas to work with.  So what exactly did I find wrong with all of this?

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YOUR MOVIE SUCKS! – Why I still don’t like this movie

I’m not about to discount the sincerity of Aronofsky’s vision or suggest that he merely stumbled into these themes by accident.  What I DO want to make a distinction about though is that metaphors and allegory are TOOLS; not necessarily a story.  At the end of the day, Aronofsky isn’t writing an article about the environment or writing a book that explains how messed up and misogynistic Judeo-Christian religions are; he made a movie that an audience will be sitting through for two hours.  This is an example where I feel the filmmakers completely missed the forest for the trees or knew the steps of dance but couldn’t hear the music.  In its effort to turn biblical stories as well as metaphors about being a creative person (and even filmmaking exercises in building tension) into a modern day surrealistic parable, he forgot to make the goings on in-between matter to the audience… or at least matter to me.  Like I said, LOTS of people are getting a lot out of this, but all I could think of while watching this is what is Jennifer Lawrence’s DEAL?  What am I supposed to connect with on a character level with her?  Does she ever crack a joke?  Does she like to read the newspaper?  What does she love about Javier Bardem that she puts up with his bullshit?  Is there a story behind her social anxiety?  In light of the metaphor at play (Mother Earth always provides for us no matter how much we hurt her) these questions may seem trivial, but we’re also asked to spend TWO HOURS with her and her role never asks her to be anything more than the bare minimum of engagement; a problem by the way that wasn’t present in Black Swan which was similarly hyper focused on a single character and dealt with lots of metaphors and allegories.  Honestly, what she reminded me of most is a protagonist from one of those FMV horror games like Phantasmagoria; moving along from scene to scene and reacting to individual moments while also returning to a state of neutrality afterwards as we try to figure out how to move on to the next set piece.  That works when you’re in direct control of the character as you to better put yourself into the role, but a blank slate in a movie THIS heavy on interpersonal interactions and a fantastical setting (nothing really exists outside of her house and characters act with increasingly obtuse behavior), just ends up feeling frustrating and unengaging.  The movie INTENTIONALLY focuses on her exclusively which means the audience has to take its cues from the performance, and we’re just getting nothing.  It’s like a joke where the straight man doesn’t fulfil their half of the formula or a horror film where the character in danger fails to project that sense of fear.  This is why I think the movie should have leaned into the comedy a lot more; making Jennifer Lawrence come off more as an exasperated straight woman or if she was a lot more expressive in her befuddlement with the situation.  This would have EASILY humanized her and solved pretty much all of my problems with the first half of the movie!  Instead the performance she was asked to give just makes the façade of it that much more apparent and it just made it nearly impossible for me to stay engaged with her plight outside of how OVERT the invasions of personal space are from the mysterious guests.  Now that’s my problem with the first two thirds where the religious allegories took somewhat of a backseat and movie wasn’t trying too hard to outright SHOCK its audience.  Let’s get into why THAT doesn’t work, shall we?  Once the ball starts to REALLY roll in the third act, the movie becomes almost entirely a mad dash towards absurdity; dropping all pretenses of being about characters and the emotions that they feel in favor of forwarding the metaphor and terrifying the audience.  Jennifer Lawrence gets to do a bit more here because she has so much more to react against, but any semblance of realism or relatable character moments (outside of extreme moments of emotional distress) are thrown out the window, along with the solid themes of anxiety that had been keeping my interest all along.  Instead, it’s an incredibly ambitious and rather stunning survivalist story for the next half hour where everything is going COMPLETELY to Hell (metaphorically I guess for whatever that’s worth) as Aronfosky begins checking off his least favorite things about humanity.  Greedy?  Check.  Self-serving and lacking in empathy?  Check.  Righteousness leading to acts of horror and brutality?  You better BELIEVE that’s a check right there!  It’s rather interesting to watch, at least at first, and is one of the more impressive single sequences of cinematography that we’ve gotten all year.  However, things start to go downhill once Jennifer Lawrence’s baby enters the picture.  This is the point where not only the metaphor starts to break down for me but the movie just goes too far for no good reason.  Now you may be thinking that I’m talking about the death of the baby at the hands of the mob and the subsequent eating of his corpse.  Actually… I didn’t really have a problem with that.  It’s EXTRAORDINARILY dark, but it FITS with what’s going on and is instrumental to the advancement of the plot.  Not only does it go along with the religious allegory (Christ is murdered for the sins of man and we now feed on the body of Christ to be closer to God), but it becomes the key turning point in Jennifer Lawrence’s character arc.  This is the point where she has nothing left to lose and is ready to try and take back everything that has been given to the mob of people that have invaded her house.  That is PERFECT for this movie even if the metaphors kind of stop making sense here.  I mean… Mother Earth didn’t give birth to Christ.  Mary was a human, i.e. someone who would have been part of the mob, so her being the mother of the Messiah doesn’t make much sense; plus the fact that I’m pretty sure GOD was the one who was super pissed about the death of the baby and it was Christ himself that plead for him to forgive mankind.  Not only that, but when she starts stabbing people for vengeance of her lost child… is that supposed to be natural disasters or something?  I don’t know, but there isn’t THAT much more of the movie to go after the Baby Murder so I guess we should just consider ourselves lucky that Aronofsky didn’t get lost in his own metaphors earlier on.  Now you may be asking if it wasn’t the baby death, then what WAS it that pissed me off enough to hate the ending of this movie?  After the baby is murdered and she starts attacking people, she’s knocked to the floor, beat up in grotesque detail, and even sexually assaulted while everyone shouts misogynistic insults at her.  It’s not a long scene, but it’s presence in this movie is the final nail in the coffin for a film that was already getting on my nerves.  Unlike the baby murder which served a purpose, this is just piling on.  No one else in this movie is attacked in the way that she is; not even her own victims once she gets all stabby after the dead baby.  Heck, even the dead baby’s death and subsequent consumption isn’t shown in as much gory detail as Jennifer Lawrence getting punched in the face while her clothes are forcibly removed.  The purpose of the sexual assault in this movie is the same as in any number of movies whose use of it is almost universally reviled, and that is escalation.  The idea that it’s shocking if someone is attacked, but it’s even MORE so if we add sexual assault to the mix.  Also, now that the environmental destruction angle has become a prominent part of the film’s discussion, I can’t help but think this is Aronofsky putting to visuals the expression “raping the planet” which only makes the whole sequence THAT much more crass and unpalatable.  I’m absolutely not the one who should be making determinations on this, but taking an experience like sexual assault and using it to make a cheap point or for a callous metaphor is a pretty low move to make, and there’s literally NOTHING that would have been lost if it was cut out of this movie.

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THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT! – Final Thoughts

I’m still torn if this movie is going to be mentioned on my inevitable WORST OF THE YEAR list considering what it DOES manage to get right and the genuine talent on display when compared with a lot of the low effort crap that will SURELY make it on the list.  This movie bored me, annoyed me, and repulsed me at very stages throughout it, and being from a great director or having an interesting starting point really aren’t qualities that would save it from being part of that list.  I’ll have to ruminate on this some more, but the bottom line for me is the movie is just not a good example of what it’s trying to be and the ways it goes about it are rather unpalatable to say the least.  I have no doubt that Aronofsky will make plenty more movies that I’ll enjoy and even a few that I’ll absolutely adore, but for now let’s just call this a… mixed bag.

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Additional Reading for those still curious!

Is ‘mother!’ a Head Trip? No, it’s an Allegory! Let the Term Papers Begin! (Owen Gleiberman) – http://variety.com/2017/film/columns/is-mother-a-head-trip-no-its-an-allegory-jennifer-lawrence-1202561261/

‘mother!’: How to Explain What Darren Aronfosky’s Insane Movie is Really About (Zack Sharf; Jamie Righetti; Eric Kohn; David Ehrlich; Anne Thompson) – http://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/mother-ending-explained-jennifer-lawrence-darren-aronofsky-spoilers-1201876829/

Mother!’s Ending: What Does It All Mean? (Julie Miller) – https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/09/mother-movie-meaning-explained

The True Meaning of mother! Explained (Bob Chipman) – http://screenrant.com/mother-movie-2017-meaning-themes-explained

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