Graham: In time, audiences may grow to love ‘mother!’

The movie has been shunned by audiences, but give it time and people may come around

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

People are talking about “mother!” Not necessarily in a good way, but they’re talking nonetheless.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film opened two weeks ago and has underperformed at the box office, where it has earned just $15 million, which is solid for an art film, but poor for a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence that opened on 2,300 screens. It was branded with a dreaded “F” rating from audiences from CinemaScore, the exit polling company that gauges crowd reactions.

That “F” put it in very select — and not at all prestigious — company. Only 18 other movies have ever earned the total failure designation, and those titles include the Lindsay Lohan horror vehicle “I Know Who Killed Me,” the Nicolas Cage atrocity “The Wicker Man” and the Meg Ryan erotic thriller “In the Cut.” Bad movies, all.

“mother!” is not a bad movie — far from it — but it’s easy to see why audiences have reacted to it in such a toxic manner. It is a movie that is tough to wrap one’s brain around, which deals in metaphors that don’t immediately present themselves. Further, it is a jarring experience, meant to rattle and disturb, and is successful in doing so. Add it all up, and of course someone exiting the theater’s immediate reaction is going to be negative. Only masochists — and movie critics — enjoy things that make you feel so bad.

And you definitely leave “mother!” with something of a bad feeling. That means it has touched on a nerve, made you feel something, even if that “something” is discomfort. If you conflate good art with things that make you feel warm inside, then yes, “mother!” is an F. But art is meant to be challenging and it’s meant to be examined past a knee-jerk reaction. And that’s where the experience of “mother!” grows deeper.

I saw “mother!” last weekend at the AMC Livonia and when the credits came up, the few people in the theater were swift to voice their opinion. “I didn’t get it,” said one woman, exasperated, in the row behind me. She turned to others as she was walking out of the theater. “Did you get it? What about you? Did anyone get it?” (That is sort of amazing in and of itself: a piece of art that forces strangers to interact with each other. How often does that happen?)

Here’s what happens in “mother!”: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play an unnamed married couple living in a gorgeous home in the middle of nowhere. Literally in the middle of nowhere: They don’t have a driveway or a sidewalk or anything around their home, just tall grass and some woods in the distance. This is important.

She spends all her time renovating the home, which is being restored after a fire burned it to the ground. He is a poet in a massive state of writer’s block. She does everything she can to foster an environment where he can work in peace, but he can’t seem to put pen to paper.

One day a man (Ed Harris) shows up at the door, Bardem invites him in, and they become fast friends. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, and at the invitation of Bardem, they stay awhile. Lawrence is basically like, “who are these people and why are you inviting them into our home?” but she goes with it, reluctantly.

Things happen, more people come through the doors, a major fight ensues. Lawrence winds up getting pregnant, which finally inspires Bardem to write. But the work he creates only brings more people and more chaos into their once-tranquil home. Some pretty disturbing things happen with the baby as “mother!” builds to its raging climax, which leaves you feeling punched in the gut.

“mother!” can be read on several levels, but it is definitely not meant to be taken literally as a story about houseguests from hell. It took me awhile — three viewings, to be exact — but I got to a place where I feel comfortable with my “mother!” interpretation.

Many agree that in the movie, Lawrence is a stand-in for Mother Earth, the Bardem character is God, and the film is about man and woman (the Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer characters can be seen as Adam and Eve) ruining the planet. I like the read that the film is in some way about director Aronofsky (he is the Bardem character), and Lawrence is playing a version of his ex-wife Rachel Weisz, and the film is sort of an apology for the dissolution of their marriage. (Stirring the pot, Aronofsky — who is the same age as Bardem — is currently dating Lawrence. Scandalous!)

There are other ways to look at the movie, and it’s a work that invites thorough deconstruction, which is to say the book has yet to be written on “mother!” Looking ahead, you can see film students and midnight audiences poring over it and debating its meanings. It is a rich, textured work that swirls around your head until it makes you dizzy.

Exit polls deemed it an F, but history will likely be much more kind.

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