CinemaScore’s Audience Surveys Be Damned: “Mother!” Is Ambitious and Entertaining (Enough) Cinema

Less than twenty films have ever received an “F” from CinemaScore. The fact that Mother! is one of those films says more about us than anything else, really.

Let’s be clear: just because a film has ambitious intentions doesn’t necessarily make it an enjoyable experience. The Tree of Life, for example, was brilliant in scope and what it was trying to say about humanity, but most people fell asleep after ten minutes. For others, it was an unforgettable emotional journey that led to tears of astonishment. You can never really know how you’ll feel about a movie until you see it for yourself.

Of course, if you’re the type of person who can’t live between the Fast and Furious world and the Drive (another extremely polarizing film) world, then you’re probably somebody who would never be able to even appreciate what something like The Tree of Life set out to accomplish. And the same goes for a film like Mother! – with one big difference.

Mother! is less Terrence Malick and more Christopher Nolan where entertainment and sheer ambition successfully coexist for a couple of hours. Nolan was able to achieve that with films like Interstellar and even Dunkirk whereas Malick has been stuck in a quagmire of impressing the few, but boring the majority for decades.

Going back to Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn closed the gap better than Malick ever did but even that film was too slow, or too pretentious, or too whatever for much of the general public. Darren Aronofsky, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to suffer from that problem.

From the beginning he’s been an upper echelon director with a knack not only for the technical aspects of his job, but with the conceptual side as well. Mother! is certainly no exception to that premise, with allegorical, environmental, and even political symbolism stuffed into 121 minutes like it’s the country’s last Thanksgiving turkey.

The idea that such a – if you think about it – unbearably pretentious film can be watchable is an idea we should be celebrating. I thought Mother! (stylized as mother! because of the symbolism of course) was suspenseful, thrilling, and grotesque at the end with strong, anchored performances from every major cast member.

I would think that even without the symbolic variables, people would be able to appreciate a film like this that incorporates elements of various genres to express whatever the fuck Aronofsky wants to say. So why does this movie have an “F” from CinemaScore?

CinemaScore is a market research firm in Las Vegas and they survey film audiences and rate their experiences with the use of letter grades. In my experience, most films tend to get somewhere between an “A” and a “B-” so the thought of a movie actually achieving an “F” is downright staggering. Although I didn’t do the actual math, I’m guessing the odds are more likely you’d be attacked by a shark. In a landlocked state.

All jokes aside, it’s a very dubious accomplishment and given what Mother! brings to the table, it makes me question whether the problem lies within the movie, or within the audience. Make no mistake: this film can be difficult to sit through sometimes, but I can honestly say I was never actually bored. I may not have “known” exactly what I was looking at, but I knew it was important and I knew it was important I paid attention.

Plus, let’s not act like Mother! is some kind of documentary about calculus or something. It is a genuinely tense film and the performances are simply sublime. Each individual obviously knows the significance of their role in this deeply layered tale. Just look at some of the cast and the “names” of their characters:

Jennifer Lawrence: Mother

Javier Bardem: Him

Ed Harris: Man

Michelle Pfeiffer: Woman

Domnhall Gleeson: Oldest Son

Brian Gleeson: Younger Brother

You get the idea. Not a single person in the film has a name or is referenced with any name. Lawrence, Bardem, and Harris are terrific in almost every role, but what I really enjoyed the most was what Michelle Pfeiffer brings to this film as the Woman. She is funny at times, extremely sinister elsewhere, and occasionally downright disturbing. Imagine if her Scarface character had the brain of Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. That’s right: cold on the outside AND the inside. Scary!

The technical aspects of this film are no joke either, from the cinematography to the production design. My guess is that people would have a much more favorable view of this movie if the content was much less complex. And that’s a fucking shame and maybe the advertising was misleading. But there’s really no excuse to go into this film and get blindsided.

Everyone I’ve personally spoken to made a conscious decision to go into this knowing as little as possible, because they know what kind of director Aronofsky is and they know his work is consistently approachable yet complex at the same time. Think about Black Swan, for example. That was a very complicated film with lots of themes to consider (only to drift off and think about Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman heh) but it was admittedly easier to sit through.

Again: Mother! really was not a grind. Would I see it again? I’m not sure, to be honest. I will say I think I get the basic gist of what Aronofsky intended with this film, and seeing it again to squeeze out more meaning isn’t worth the 121 minutes. But seeing it once? I think you have to. It’s a must. The sheer ambition of this film and the degree of success in which that ambition is met – not fully, but good enough – is something we should not be taking for granted.

I understand the vast majority of people see movies to have fun and be entertained, but just because you don’t fully (or partially) understand the full meaning of a film doesn’t mean it should just be thrown to the curb. It is not a bad thing if you don’t understand something the first time and I feel like Mother! is a classic example of a film where most people leave and just say, “Ugh, that was fucking terrible! Nothing happened. The fuck, man!? It didn’t even make sense!”

Come on, cuh!

Like I said at the beginning, there’s no hope for you if you can’t walk the line between Fast and the Furious and Drive, or Armageddon and Interstellar. In other words: if you can’t handle actually having to think about your entertainment, you probably shouldn’t bother with this despite the various positives I’ve described above. Even though it’s a pretty good movie even if you remove, like, seventy percent of the symbolism, this is also a country with Donald Trump as president. I mean, what did we really expect CinemaScore’s results to be?

However, if you’re the type of person who is able to appreciate cinema for both its entertainment and artistic value, Mother! just might be the thing for you during this disconcerting Hollywood drought (both commercially and critically over the past several months).

One thing I will say though is that I feel like this movie is extremely polarizing for the vast majority of us because I admit there’s almost too much shoved in here. It’s kinda overwhelming and I think Aronofsky almost tried TOO hard if that makes sense. Instead of focusing in on the scope, he kinda just threw it all into the blender and poured it into a cup for us. There’s a certain degree of quantity over quality here, but in my opinion, there’s enough quality to make up for his thermonuclear explosion of content.

So here’s my final assessment of Mother! since I wrote a lot more than I intended to and it was all over the place. I didn’t hate it. I also didn’t love it. I liked what the film offered outside of the symbolism (acting, technical stuff) and I appreciated the ambition of the symbolism’s scope as well as the integration of that symbolism with the technical aspects of the film itself.

I thought there was too much in this, however, and maybe it would have been better if Aronofsky just made a mini-series or something. It was just too much in too little time. It was also too in-the-face in the second half of the film, which is ironic considering most of the criticism seems to be about what the film’s message is supposed to be.

With the blatant symbolism in the second half, you would think that wouldn’t be the case, but maybe what happened was that people were so lost after like twenty minutes, they never made a recovery even though Aronofsky makes the mistake of losing the subtlety, especially in the last third of the film which descends into grotesque madness (but maybe that was the point… SYMBOLISM!).

Still, I think the positives outweigh the negatives, although as a backhanded compliment and final thought, I will say I would recommend The Tree of Life over Mother! any day of the week. You can have beauty with your symbolism and in this time of darkness in not just this country, but all over the world, I don’t really think we need to subject ourselves to more darkness in a setting we generally use to get OUT of the darkness.

But see this at least once.