The challenge is to find entertainment that’s smart and good without having to invest too much time sifting through the pile of lesser things. Rotten Tomatoes ratings and Cinemascore grades can be aids in that effort, even though they can also minimize people’s desire to read full reviews causing them to miss out on the kind of nuance a score or grade can’t capture. But the biggest problem may be the narrative that they can create when the ratings aren’t pretty, especially when paired with box office numbers: the failure narrative. And that’s exactly what’s happening with mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film.
Here are the stats coloring the perception that mother! is a failure: a 69% Tomatometer score among critics, an F from filmgoers polled by Cinemascore, and an opening weekend total of $7.5 million at the domestic box office (with $6 million additional from international markets).
mother! “only” cost $30 million (not counting marketing costs) to make and they’re almost halfway to that number with the hope that international markets, home video, and maybe an (unlikely) awards season bump will allow a few more dollars to trickle in despite the negative connotations associated with bombing. As we pointed out in our own box office report (which provided some context for the film’s performance), curiosity may also lift those numbers. Jennifer Lawrence is a big name and Aronofsky brings with him some cache due to the acclaim of The Wrestler and Black Swan, but if it wasn’t for that rare Cinemascore feat, we probably wouldn’t have noticed the thud based solely on the movie’s mixed critical reception and box office.
The audience reaction is noteworthy not just for its verdict, but for the intensity that comes with it, however. Here’s a (small) sampling of fan reviews/complaints from Rotten Tomatoes. There are more than sixty pages to sift through if you want to take a look.
And these are more on the tame/less curse-y side than some of the others. There are sprinkles of praise in those 60 pages, of course, but a lot of people hate this movie.
What sparked such intense anger? Is it people not getting the movie or being put off that they had to figure out what Aronofsky was trying to say? Were they offended by the subject matter and some of the extreme places Aronofsky takes the movie? If you’ve seen mother!, that probably wouldn’t come as a thunderous shock. This is a hard movie to watch and an even harder one to enjoy, especially for anyone going in thinking it was something that it wasn’t. And that was a recurring theme throughout the pages and pages of complaints.
You know the cliches: People work hard for their money and free time is at a premium. Movies are supposed to be an enjoyable escape. When they take their audience on an unanticipated ride or fail in their perceived mission to entertain and distract from the chaos of the world (and this really isn’t the movie for that), then (rightly or wrongly) a sense of betrayal develops. But mother! isn’t a Transformers movie or some other piece of entertainment. Like a lot of other movies with difficult themes at its center, mother! is better described as art. This means its creator has entirely different objectives. Here’s where we separate mother! the movie from mother! the product.
To justify the film’s cost, Paramount decided against a staggered release closer to awards season that could have generated word of mouth buzz from primed arthouse audiences prior to expansion. Instead, they planned a mid-sized national release of approximately 2,600 theaters and tried to market the film as a creepy home invasion/psychological horror film from an auteur director with indie cred. Surely, they had their reasons and, to their credit, they are standing behind the film and the strategy, with Paramount worldwide president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan telling Indiewire:
“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 of 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.”
Still, after seeing mother! it’s hard to look at the above trailer as something other than a bit of misdirection that, I assume, Paramount thought would pay off due to Jennifer Lawrence’s box office appeal, positive word of mouth, and critical adulation (for the movie, Lawrence, and co-star Javier Bardem). To put it mildly, that was, at best, a miscalculation. But that doesn’t mean we should neglect the fact that this was an incredibly challenging movie to market (and, yes, a brave one to make). People, it seems, want to be told what something is before they commit, but they also don’t want the movie to be spoiled for them. How much information would have been too much for this singular project? These problems derailed mother! the product, but they have little to do with the ultimate success of mother! the movie or piece of art. But none of this is to say that the artist and art won’t suffer.
What’s the first thing you think of when someone says John Carter Of Mars or Waterworld? That “failure” label is going to hang with mother! for a while and nobody is going to have the chance to view it with a completely open mind ever again. Worse still, Aronofsky may be forced to be more economical or broaden his sensibilities with future projects should Paramount’s praise prove hollow or other studios lack the courage to take another big swing like this. But again, those things don’t determine whether the work done by Aronofsky as a storyteller on this movie met its objectives.
Paramount basically acknowledged the difficulty of marketing the film to a crowd of entertainment-seekers in its statement. But putting that aside — and the Tomatometers, Cinemascores, Box Office Mojos, Jennifer Lawrence’s bankability, and Paramount’s bottom line — the film exists because Darren Aronofsky wanted to tell an intense and troubling story and its inspired the reactions it’s gotten by sparking furious debate. It’s hard to call mother! a failure when you consider those results and the power of a film that speaks to the whole of human existence; our insidious flaws, our faith, and our relationship with the Earth. To say nothing of the artistry of its presentation.
Furthermore, if you want a silver lining to the decision to open this wide and market it poorly, consider that more people saw this story in parts of the country that aren’t always visited by thought-provoking art then would have been the case had it opened in New York, LA, and then disappeared into the streaming void. Obviously, a ton of people who saw it hated it (a bit more than the “some” that Paramount acknowledged, it seems), but they (and everyone else who saw it) were still affected by it — for a moment, for an hour, for a few days after. People will reflect, they’ll tell friends, and maybe those friends will go to see how good or bad the film is for themselves (while they still can in theaters, or later at home) and the cycle will repeat and Aronofsky’s story will spread, fulfilling its intended destiny as a cult movie that really speaks to a small but passionate audience.
The notion that something needs to make a lot of money or win a lot of praise to be successful isn’t insane, it’s prudent. But it shouldn’t always be the end of the story in the name of convenience and tidy labeling. Objectives matter when classifying whether something succeeds or fails. On its own terms, Aronofsky’s film is a triumph.