mother!, or A Feminist Movie For Men
I initially had no desire to see this movie. While Aronofsky, as a director, has never turned me off from his work (with the exception of his white washed garbage Noah film), there just didn’t seem to be much going on with this new psychological thriller (two words put together that I think are absolutely misguided). As a fan of Rosemary’s Baby and the quieter paranoia imbued horror of the late 60’s and early 70’s, which itself were in response to the paranoia of the country due to the Red Scare and the Cold War coupled with the women’s liberation movement that was running through the countries veins at the time, I was intrigued but resigned myself to catching the film when it finally made it’s way to streaming. Also: I’ve never been in the J-Law fan camp. Look, she’s FINE. Just not “Top Greatest Actors of the Millennial Era”. Buzzfeed will have you think differently.
People love J-Law falling down on the red carpet, yo.
But this strange thing started to happen to the film as the release date neared, and the festival circuit was running hot. People started to have opinions about the film. No. Not opinions. Proclamations. Mother! wasn’t just good or bad. Mother! was causing a riot, ironically, and eliciting as many jeers from European critics at screenings as cheers. Reports were coming in that the film would be too much for audiences, the places and dark corners that Aronofosky was exploring would be so bonkers that public would reject it. But on the other side of the coin, the film was being heralded as a masterpiece, a return for Aronofosky, and a surprisingly topical work for the unstable framework of the United States post the 2016 election. And while the original reports of boo’s tickled me with feelings of schadenfreude, as the reports of the gonzo nature of the film became more prevalent…I knew I had to see it.
I’m an official card carrying member of the doctrine: there is much to be said about art that sparks a reaction, positive or negative, that sets the crowds on fire. A “great work of art” can transcend us from the comforts of our everyday life, forcing us to take a beat and search within ourselves to find why something impersonal has personally affected us. While “bad art”, typically, is decried for experimenting with extremes, being brash and bold, and working outside the preconceived notions of what to expect. But what many purposefully forget with “bad art”, is that it too can transcend us to a place unexpected, where we can live in a grimy world that looks like ours…but isn’t. Exploitation films, many working from outside the studio system (and let’s be real, a LOT from Pittsburgh and Baltimore), are great examples of this idea of “trash as art”. Many would say that a film like Aronofsky’s, an original darling of thought provoking art house cinema, would fall into the general “prestige film” that we usually are inundated with closer to awards season. But what he has crafted here is more than prestige, and is toeing closer to the line of abstract exploitation cinema than many may want to admit.
But I can’t recommend this movie to you. I don’t think anyone actually can recommend this film. Not because it falls anywhere on the Rotten Tomatoes/Cinemascore spectrum that general audiences are accustomed to, but because it is such a singular experience for every individual viewer that there is no possible way to judge how anyone will react to this very multilayered story. I think the concept of cinema as church is preposterous, but this film comes closest to being the most visceral, physical experience of cerebral reckoning that I’ve ever encountered. And it may not be for the reasons you imagine.
Without giving away many of the plot beats, the film is a religious allegory for the story of the Virgin Mary. Quick reminder: Mary and Joseph are the new hot couple, but while Mary is waiting for Joseph to finally put a ring on it and consummate it already, Mary winds up getting pregnant by the Holy Spirit himself in an act called “Immaculate Conception”. Nine months later (probably, I don’t know, the Bible isn’t real y’all) out comes little baby Jesus and the rest is bloody history. If you grew up in the predominantly Christian United States then this parable has been hammered into your head since diapers. We know it. We get it. But the utilization of the story as an allegory for a women’s struggle in a fraught marriage is a refreshing new angle to view Mary from, not only because we rarely hear her story, but because through her history as a religious figure we forget that Mary was simply a women that had something done to her that women throughout time can identify with: the stripping away of self autonomy for the desires of a man. Because of the “immaculate conception”, Mary loses her identity and becomes merely a vessel for a man, and not the self actualized autonomous person that humans inherently are. Even by the nature of her worship in specific sects of religion, she is still merely product of the machinations of men.
And I never thought about that. And that shit ain’t fair, y’all.
The turning point for me was early in this film, before the religious undertones because conscious overtones, when the mother is being dismissed incessantly by the three other major figures of the film: the Poet, Man, and Woman. From asking the Poet to simply stay with her, or the seeing the disaster left by the Woman in her kitchen (where, if you didn’t know, they TOTALLY have a landline) to being body shamed by the sole other female in the house these microaggressions began to spin, and turn, and eventually churn in my stomach. My mind was ringing with “Why’s everyone being such a fucking dick to her?!”. Then it clicked for me. This claustrophobic frustration, this itch underneath the skin that I was feeling is the feeling women have had to deal with their entire lives. Dismissed, not heeded, asked to be seen and not heard, even by a husband who on the outside is a loving man and yet is seemingly clueless to his wife’s suffering. It made me uncomfortable, squirming in my chair, repeating “Rude. Ruuuuude. RUUUDE.” And this point specifically is extremely important to why this film matters, and specifically why this film is not a violent misogynist manifesto as many critics will lead you to believe.
We have seen representations of feminism on the screen for decades. We’ve seen Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin take down the patriarchy in “9 to 5”, Sigourney Weaver’s empowered turn in the “Alien” series, Melanie Griffith taking on the toxic masculinity of the 1980’s with “Working Girl”, and Linda Hamilton just being an all around BAMF in “The Terminator”, to Pam Grier’s powerful portrayal in “Coffy”, Peggy Lipton in “The Mod Squad”, and pretty much anything with Susan Tyrell that were ushered in during the sexual revolution. (note: I know that even these touchstone films are in themselves problematic in their portrayal of strong women, and there are OF COURSE many others films that empower women and dissect feminism and misogyny much more astutely, but as “mother!” is a piece of genre cinema I stayed within those confines. Except Working Girl and 9 to 5, because, c’moooooon! I’m listening to the song RIGHT NOW.)
What these films have in common are the individuality of women presented as strong, powerful, free; things that history has robbed them of. It’s amazing to watch these fearless (and fierce) actors work in roles that they may never have been given an opportunity to in the past. This is what we expect from a feminist film. Strong women breaking the chains of society to have their voices heard. And we need more of those films right now, because the scales have not been made even through the last forty years despite having a dearth of great stories.
But what that has done is possibly tricked viewers, more accurately, “woke men struggling with fragile ego’s”, into believing that for a film to truly be feminist it must fit into categories that they themselves have put upon movies, and if it fails to check off their own personal boxes then it of course becomes a misogynistic film. There is no gray area for capturing violence against women on screen: it is labeled misogynistic. Utilization of the male gaze? Totes anti-women. And there are films that do this, no question, that are unequivocally misogynistic drivel. But “mother!” isn’t one of those films. So why is it being labelled as such? I think it has less to do with the director, and more to do with the inherent fragility that course through all men’s veins, and how we decide to face that which we thought was tenacious.
As a passionate devotee to horror films, I see violence on screen pretty much every day. Hell, even non-horror properties are filled to the brim with violence this days. Some to make a point, some to not, but mostly it’s unavoidable. Why? Because that’s life. Life is a ferris wheel of violence, at sometimes riding high and sometimes low but always cyclical. It’s naive to think otherwise. And we know that violence against women, specifically, is a dark shadow cast over society that has only morphed and changed as technology and social connectedness has evolved. So when we see violence against women during a fractured political time when the nature of our reality is scarier than our fiction, it makes us uncomfortable. And when we become uncomfortable we tend to push away, rather than see beneath and understand our dolorous feelings. It’s like the ostrich putting his head in the sand, it’s easier for viewers and critics alike to decry it as rage against the opposite sex than to embrace the uncomfortable feelings and understand why we, our bodies, are reacting this way. As I stated previously, I felt physically pained watching what was happening to the mother in this film, and THAT’S why this isn’t a sleight against women (or Aronofsky’s war of the sexes as many more critical minds will lead you to believe) but a gigantic mirror held up to all men saying: “if this makes you mad, then get woke AF and take action”. The film places us in the shoes of the mother, seeing what she sees (indicated by the beautiful close up work by cinematographer Matthew Libatique), feeling what she feels. Putting man through the motions of life as a woman. Of course we don’t always need to see violence to understand it exists, but we sometimes do need to see horror to remind others that it still needs to be discussed.
This is a feminist movie for men. I don’t think film can change the minds of deeply ingrained behavior, but I think if any picture is a start: it may be this one. If you walk out of this movie not wanting to hug a woman and say “Yo, I’m sorry for, well, patriarchy and the shit hand it has dealt to you because #WhiteMen” then you may want to sit down because you might be part of the problem.
Or it’s just a scathing take down on Christian theology, as God forces himself onto Mary without consent because he puts his needs first as she is merely a vessel for a son, then dismisses her for the adoration of his followers, until it culminates in a bloody Eucharist just for God to not learn from his actions and cycle through his mistakes yet again. If the Christian God showed up on Tinder, you would swipe left.
But also: don’t listen to me. As I’ve stated I can’t recommend this movie to you, because I am not you. Decide for yourself. Why? Because everyone deserves autonomy.