An Ode to Attacking the Audience – A Reflection on mother!

September 21st 2017

Disclaimer: contains light spoilers for the film: mother! (2017) and a NSFW-ish poster

I begin writing this after just leaving the movie theatre, recovering from the recent film by director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) with the odd title of mother!. This is a movie that many filmgoers HATE with a passion., an audience polling site that on average gives movies a “B-” at the least, even the bad ones, gave this movie the rare lowest possible audience score of “F”. Audiences are repulsed by this film, and as a result its not likely to make its budget back. It also will likely not be staying in theatres much longer.

However, despite the evidence, sitting through this movie was one of the most intense and positive cinematic experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre.

From what I have gathered, opinions of this movie are extremely polarizing. Some are singing this movie’s praises while others feel compelled to denounce it as one of the worst movies of the year. Why?

Here’s the simplest answer I can think of: This movie attacks the audience in ways they could never be prepared for.

A bit of context of my experience leading up to seeing this film: Kevin, my roommate and film buff partner, heard about the controversy of mother! through film buzz online and went to go see it on his own. Afterwards, the film left him devastated and drained. All he could think about was this movie and praise it for its boldness. Kevin and I have watched a lot of films together and we’ve come to know each other’s tastes pretty well, so I know that if Kevin has a strong reaction to a film I know I’m likely to have a strong reaction to it as well. So the very next day, I made time in my already busy schedule (a Sunday night) to go see this movie with him on his second viewing, knowing nothing about the film.

And boy.

I never cry during movies. But I almost started tearing up during the last act of this film due to its sheer visceral intensity alone. Kevin admitted to almost blacking out at one point and seeing stars. We both agreed that this film has become one of our all time favorites. An uncomfortable intense puzzling bold metaphorical painful dizzying masterpiece.

There’s plenty in the film to praise. mother! is undoubtedly one of the most poetic uses of sound design I’ve ever heard in film. The unsettling cinematography is like nothing else I’ve scene. But what’s more relevant here are the reasons why this film has such a polarizing opinions among its audience. Why do some people love it while others hate it?

For one, I think the film has suffered greatly by it’s marketing. It has been mistakenly presented in its trailers as a home invasion psychological horror flick, giving most audiences going into the film an incorrect impression of what they are in for. While the movie centers around a home invasion plot point initially, it immediately from the very first scene grounds itself as a complex tapestry of surrealism and metaphor, working at a level of sophistication that many might not be prepared to take in.

This film asks a LOT of its audience. Unless you cheat and do research ahead of time, audiences are forced to interpret what they’re witnessing on screen with only the imagery and cinematography as guidance. Therefore, the film’s extreme stylistic choices have the potential to come off as incredibly powerful, incredibly sickening, incredibly stupid, or a combination of all three, depending on how each viewer approaches the film.

For some inexplicable reason, something about this film allowed me to deeply connect with the imagery in a way that I’m still trying to understand. I personally interpreted the film on my first viewing as a metaphor into fertility and the act of creation and its affect on society and intimate relationships. Kevin, who also deeply resonated with the film, was more taken by the interpretation of womanhood and celebrity status. After further research, we discovered that the director actually means the film be a depiction of the bible and the forces of nature, depicting the dark relationships between God, the Earth, humanity, and most importantly, Jennifer Laurence as Mother Nature.

One of the stylized shocking posters for “mother!”

The way the metaphors play out are far from sacred or antique however. Perhaps this excerpted popular review from Letterboxded illustrates what puts people off most about this upsetting film (most of her review reproduced here):

“…That nothing this disgusting could ever be made by a human being, someone with empathy, and an understanding of fear and anxiety. But when they threw Jennifer Lawerence’s character (Mother) on the ground of her home, calling her a “cunt” and “nasty whore”, kicking, punching, literally murdering her, I knew I had lost it.

And before you say I’m missing the point, I promise you I’m not. I got what Aronofsky is *trying* to say. I fully get the “no respect for Mother Nature” metaphor that he blatantly screams in your face. I get it all. But there’s a way to say this without completely attacking the audience in a way that makes it impossible to respect the filmmaking, the craft, or the heart and soul that goes into deconstructing a films metaphor. I completely adore when a film is willing the tackle thought provoking topics, such as the way we treat the Earth, the way we treat women, and etc.  But whenever you turn a claustrophobic, anxiety infested story into a misogynistic abuse fest in a span of 15 minutes, that’s when you’ve lost it.” – Katie (Letterboxd)

The misogynistic violence that Katie describes in the film while framed in a more surreal context is portrayed as very very real, and when taken at face value can understandably be seen as completely unwarranted, especially since this is a flavor of violence that strikes such a nerve on today’s cultural psyche (and what Katie describes is only part of what makes this film so repulsive). What interests me most about her statement though is how she describes this moment in particular as an “attack on the audience”. And what an apt term it is.

This hits the nail on the head on one of the main reasons I think people might be strongly being put off by this film. Its traumatic imagery of violence and its unwavering dedication to its maddening uncomfortable cinematic agenda to drive home its metaphorical messages is like no other. And if you didn’t connect with the film on a personal level like I or Kevin did, if the bizarre style of the film is not to your taste, too strange, or just not your cup of tea, then of course the unexpected extreme psychological violence and unnerving cinematography has the potential to come off as unnecessary, pretentious, uncalled for, even ethically wrong. Add to it that this film was advertised as a shallow psychological horror flick, leaving most audiences completely unprepared for the heavy metaphorical themes the movie hurls at the audience.

But at the same time, it’s this intense cinematic attack that audiences are either loving or hating I believe – myself included. It’s somewhat akin to building a rollercoaster and asking the audience to get in. For some, they don’t know how or don’t want to get on. For some, like Katie, they get on and it affects them in ways that they preferred they didn’t experience.

But for some, the experience takes them to places they never thought possible.

I’ve been fascinated by the ways that audiences are forced to interact with media, be it live action film, animation, music, theatre, video games – each form of media has its own way of drawing in the viewer and compelling them to engage with what it has to offer. For film, pulling in the audience is traditionally done by attempting to depict an experience that the audience can personally connect with, be it a character, a situation, or an idea. mother! however forces you to take more of an alienated Brechtian approach to the narrative – or at least this was my experience. With its uncomfortable in-your-face cinematography, unnerving sound design, and surreal outlandish situations, mother!’s imagery is so powerful, evocative, and disturbing that each audience member is forced to form their own interpretations as to the reason behind the madness. You are constantly forced to relate to what is happening on screen but simultaneously distance yourself from the narrative to piece together the larger interpretive picture, therefore making the film’s story entirely your own. The film’s “attack” is precisely what forces engagement.

Isn’t this the most natural next step for our media today in the twenty-first century? To attack us directly with its sheer visceral power? Now that we have the internet available at our fingertips, having access to more media than we can ever hope to completely consume, our senses have begun to simultaneously sharpen and grow weary. Sharpen because we now have a much better sense of ourselves, of our own personal tastes and preferences, but weary because of the sheer amount of “stuff” that we take in all the time every hour of the day. Is it not logical then, for our media to turn to the grotesque, the horrible, the viscerally uncomfortable, to re-sensitize our senses and brains to once again force us to engage with it? To attack us directly with the unexpected, the bizarre, the unwanted, the excruciatingly painful, until it becomes unbearable?

I’m getting a little preachy here, but it’s because this is important. The way we consume media is rapidly changing, and our media has the responsibility to adapt to this change if it ever hopes to stay relevant or have any sort of power. mother! shows one way of accomplishing this. It certainly isn’t the only way – the hoards of people who reject this film will be quick to tell you otherwise. I guess I have too much of a reason to care because I also strongly believe in this power of “attacking the audience” for my own work. I enjoy making audiences feel uncomfortable, to shock, to surprise, to show them what they do not want see. I hope it’s clear that I don’t do this because of any sort of sadistic pleasure – I don’t get off on causing others discomfort. The purpose of challenging audiences in this way is to reach for this type of experience, where you are forced to battle with parts of yourself that are personal and intimate. It’s an invitation to interact with the parts of yourself that matter most. The parts of yourself you share with no one else. The desires, worries, and pains that cannot be put into words. The things that only art can communicate to us. Where a better place to have that painful journey than within the safety of art?

This movie may not be successful financially. But I have a feeling that many are going to remember this movie as the painful trip that they never knew they wanted.

Bravo, Aronofsky. Bravo.

A still from “mother!”