In fact, it’s not really a horror film at all
By David Kennedy
The posters for Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Mother, feature Jennifer Lawrence’s giant face turned skyward and superimposed over a smaller image of a house. For those who wouldn’t recognize it, this image is a homage to the poster design for the 1960s classic of satanic horror, Rosemary’s Baby, which featured a similar image of Mia Farrow’s face floating over a baby carriage. This comparison points to a key reason why this film’s release was such a misfire. Namely that Mother was marketed as a horror film when it really isn’t one.
The film certainly does take a lot of influence from the horror genre, including Rosemary’s Baby, but that doesn’t reflect what the film is at its core. To me, it seems more closely related to something like the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, or Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York, both of which make liberal use of surreal and symbolic storytelling, and inspire either confused frustration, or cult-like enthusiasm in those who see them. Mother is all of that while also being an environmentalist, biblical allegory where the relationship between artist and subject is personified as an abusive marriage. There are certainly more ways to read it, but I don’t want to be here all day. Suffice it to say that it’s weird, and, because of how it was marketed, audiences were expecting a more straightforward horror movie.
This failure on the studio’s part to market Mother is pretty understandable. It seems to me that the studio didn’t know what to do with it and neither did the audience. I don’t think Aronofsky was at all concerned with selling this movie as he was making it. He’s stated just the opposite in interviews: that he expected it to bomb, and that he was excited by this. To that end, I don’t think you could call a thirty million dollar passion project anything if not indulgent.
You could also call it ambitious. As stated before, Aronofsky uses this film to touch on a wide range of subjects with varying degrees of success. The themes of religion, environmentalism, loss of privacy, and art are baked into the movie’s narrative in a way that is impossible to ignore. This is the double-edged sword most people find themselves falling on either side of. Because, depending on how you like to watch movies, this method of storytelling can either be very engaging or very alienating. If you like picking apart every image or line of dialogue for multiple meanings you’ll probably have a great time, but if you expect for there to be a plot driven by fully fleshed out, relatable characters then you’ll really get nothing out of this.
So, given that this movie is not for everyone, or even for most people, what are its redeeming characteristics? Well, the visuals are effective at building suspense and emphasizing the perspective of the protagonist in an inventive way. The film’s very sharp use of sound and lack of a soundtrack make the slow first half of the movie feel very intensely creepy, and the second half completely overwhelming. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance adds a lot of emotional subtlety to the skeletal script and she’s well supported by her co-stars. Aronofsky is certainly no great writer, but, on a visceral level, the film does a lot right.
All in all the film is a mess, but I think it redeems itself. Although none of the things said by the film are particularly new, I think it succeeds in finding new ways to say them. It’s not worth it for everyone to go see the film, but I think anything this effective and this inventive justifies its own existence.