'mother!' Drops An Arthouse Cinema Stunner On Your Mom

Mother! Lightbulb

Your momma’s edgier than you. She got this arthouse movie. She wants to know why you don’t watch more movies. Don’t worry about that lighter.

I saw mother! on Sunday and my mind-grapes are still buzzing. This is what I want on the big screen. It isn’t unapproachably weird, but it’s so fucking out on a limb that it feels like Darren Aronofsky has gone full Wuxia master as he floats from limb to limb. I was sold on it as an Aronofsky film, with a dope poster, starring Jennifer Lawrence. So, I went in cold, without trailers, reviews, or commentaries not knowing exactly what I was going to get. But, I definitely got an Aronofsky film starring Lawrence. However, based on the social media chatter and the big, scarlet F from CinemaScore, mine was not the common experience. Isn’t art a funny thing? How did the quintessential arthouse film, mother! come to be marketed as a major blockbuster, programmed for 2,368 screens? How do we engage with arthouse cinema?

Mother! Heart Poster

It’s beautiful that it did, by the way. This is exactly the kind of movie I’d program in the Church of Watch More Movies. Oh golly, it is ripe for multiple interpretations. Is it about living with an artist? Perhaps it is a nesting doll of an allegory? Is God a narcissist? I walked out of it just humming. I don’t know if I fully understand it, but I know I want to think and talk and carry on about it. That one scene, with all the brutality? Was that a full-fledged indictment of Communion? Holy flipping hell.

Oh my, we gotta talk about it. I want to read what other people write about it. It’s divisive. I don’t think that’s because the folks who are down on it “don’t get it.” I want the conversation. After my screening, the biggest complaint I heard was there wasn’t enough information given within the film. What wasn’t there that should have been? My wife and I talked about it in the parking lot. In the car. At the grocery. While making dinner. Before bed. In the morning. I’m excited about some of the discussion I know is coming from my compatriots here at Film School Rejects.

Rather than a full-fledged dissection of mother!, what I’m really getting at is the weirdness about how we consume art. Or, for that matter, what we consider art. There’s room enough for our Die Hards and our R100s. There’s room for our comic book flicks and madness like mother! I think of all of these movies as art. What provides more commentary on the common man and the importance of the simple things than watching John McClane make little fists with his toes after a long flight?

That’s what we should get out of all films. Not some impossible to decipher madness, but something that makes us go: hold up. What the fuck did I just see? Every movie should have us talking to our seat-mates. What did you think? What about this? That? We should want to chew on our art. Break it up, morsel by morsel and savor the consumption. Oh my, I’m definitely feeling that cannibalism scene in mother! At any rate, we should treat movies like the good book. Balance your film diets, friends! Get those vegetables, sure. Meat and potatoes. Pies and candy corns, too. Well, you get my point.

I stumbled out of R100 (11 theaters) having been punched in the face. I was woozy and smiling. What did I just watch? Eventually, I arrived at a place where I knew R100 and Inside Out (4,158 theaters) had the same message. I’m not saying that interpretation is for everyone. That was my conclusion after conversation and reflection. Both films are art. They took vastly different approaches, for cosmically separated target audiences, yet still argued the same important point: sadness and suffering are equally important experiences in our life. And, in the long run, we will remember them as fondly as we do our happy moments. We need cinema we can chew on.

When I see a movie by Aronofsky, I know that whether I ultimately care for it, I will spend a great deal of time thinking about it. I’m a huge fan of The Fountain (1,472 theaters). It grabs me by the lapels every damn time and pours itself into my distracted heart reminding me to be grateful for every beautiful fucked up moment on this planet. Live in this moment.

I had similar passions with films this year like Ingrid Goes West (647 theaters) or Get Out (3,143 theaters). Their approach to the story was a little more conventional and so their trailers had an easier time conveying what we should expect. However, as I recall from The Fountain‘s trailer, you might have thought you were getting an epic story where the Wolverine fought faith with science to save his immortal Queen’s life. Or, well, something. There were bridges and cars and horses and it all looked grand and adventurous.

Marketing is unpredictable and sometimes flat-out misleading. This is not always intentional. Keep that in mind as we’ll come back to it. For now, imagine working for Paramount and being handed a film like mother! Sweet as! Right? That’s the type of project for a real go-getter. Something to attack, and just, you know, really sink one’s teeth into. Rawr!

Since you want to dive in, your first question might be, what’s the scope of the release? New York and LA? The arthouse theater regulars? 600, maybe 700 screens? Let’s get weird with this! Wrong. Nationwide, full release. Your mission, you’ve already accepted it: design a marketing campaign to sell tickets to satisfy 2,368 screens. For a gonzo arthouse film like mother! Gulp.

Mother Rosemary's Baby Poster

I’m having a bit of fun here. Afterwards, I watched the trailer and I can see why people expected something else. One of the trailers fully embraces the Rosemary’s Baby aesthetic, as did one of the posters. The film is definitely not about a pregnant woman who suspects an evil cult wants to steal her baby. It isn’t that at all. My goodness. Having seen the thing, it kind of is, you know?

One of my friends pointed out that having seen the movie, they didn’t feel like the trailer was ultimately misleading. Their argument was that the trailer played like a sort of cinematic Rorschach Test. So, we bring our own baggage with us. Basically, our expectations reflect only ourselves. We expected a different cinematic language because it was going to be a wide release and it starred the very bankable Jennifer Lawrence.

This does not necessarily mean the trailer was inaccurate. I’m not so sure about all that, especially since the marketing materials should be leading us down a very specific path. But, I don’t think it’s too far from the truth in this case. After all, I get that Rosemary’s Baby vibe having seen it.

It’s more like Rosemary’s Baby meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner if dinner were hosted by 2001 Hannibal’s (3,292 theaters) Doctor Lecter. If you’ve seen it, do you kind of dig what I’m getting at here? If you haven’t, can you even picture this film? How the hell do you cut a trailer for something so purposefully confrontational through a mostly unfamiliar approach? Honestly, you’re never going to cover that ground.

Marketing matters and you have to pick your goals carefully. I’m not saying that this did or did not happen here. What am I getting at? The trailers were never for you or me. You know, the members of the Church of Watch More Movies. Consequently, we watch movies like they are Church. Remember, Paramount was trying to reach enough people to fill 2,368 screens over the weekend. I was always going to watch this thing. That pastel colored poster with Lawrence proferring her bloody heart torn from her own chest like a god damn nightmare version of The Giving Tree got me hooked. Due to that, I didn’t need anything else. Then I saw that Rosemary’s Baby poster homage with that glorious script title treatment and I was like stop. Take my money.

The trailers were cut mostly for folks who don’t go out to movies like we do. I want to be very clear, I don’t mean that as a dig. Whether you watch a half dozen movies a year or a movie a day, the same mantra applies. The truth is, Aronofsky makes some weird movies. Most people don’t watch flicks like this. And they almost certainly don’t come prepared to assess them like literature. If you don’t come prepared to engage this movie, it’s going to leave you in the dust.

Well, when the CinemaScore folks rolled up to them and asked them to fold back some tabs on their survey, of course, they went straight to the F tab. Cue the sad trumpets from The Price Is Right. It wasn’t what they thought they were getting into and it left them in the dust. They did not make the pivot into that insane third act. And that’s okay. I hope they had some good conversations afterward. I reacted similarly to that arthouse stunner Being John Malkovich (630 theaters), so I don’t judge. That movie was not what I went to the theater expecting. As a result, if someone had pushed a CinemaScore on me back in the day I’d have gone straight to the F tab as well.

How do we turn arthouse cinema into regular old cinema? You know what I think: Join the Church of Watch More Movies. Marketing can’t do it alone. We have to watch more movies. When movies like this get wide distribution some people who got left in the dust have a couple of good conversations and start to ponder the cinematic horizon. Watch that radical passion burn. And that is why I am very happy to see what Paramount had to say about all this.

That is why I am very happy to see what Paramount had to say about all this:

This movie is very audacious and brave. You are talking about a director at the top of his game, and an actress at the top her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it. – Megan Colligen, Paramount worldwide president of marketing and distribution

I think that’s bloody marvelous. All movies shouldn’t be safe and Paramount are mother flipping rock stars for saying that in the face of what seemed like a rough response. That’s how we need to think about movies. It’s okay if they aren’t safe. Which is good, because this one ain’t. You know. That baby scene. Jesus Christ. Holy shit.

This is what we need to support. Putting mother!, a genuinely audacious film, in 2,368 theaters was an unsafe move and because of that Paramount took a hit for it. I say: print that F CinemaScore out and hang on the victory wall. mother! is not pretentious nonsense, rendered deliberately impenetrable out of some misguided superiority complex. I knew we were in for some gonzo fun because of the ting sound effect they use when the exclamation point pops onto the title sequence. hen the exclamation point

Watch dangerous movies and have strong opinions about them. If you haven’t seen this movie in the theater, go and grab a ticket for it this week. Take off from work a little early and catch a screening. Tell your boss it’s a religious thing and you need the afternoon.

 

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.