It’s not often that a film scores a perfect F on Cinemascore, but that’s the feat that mother! has pulled off. It joins such illustrious films as I Know Who Killed Me and Disaster Movie in achieving this. Audiences are, in general, not really taking to this film. I’m one of those audience members who really does not care for this film (To put it lightly), so here are five reasons why audiences are not loving the film. WARNING: I will be spoiling key elements of the movie in this article and it will not be under a spoiler cut, so if you want to go into the movie blind, bookmark and come back later.
5. Metaphor Done Poorly
So before the inevitable is said, let me make something clear… yes I’m aware that this film is a biblical metaphor. She is mother earth, he is God, the two guests are Adam & Eve, their sons are Cain & Abel. Everything in this film may as well have a big sign saying “Biblical Reference!!!!” hanging from its neck. I’m painfully aware of that… I get it, I just don’t like it.
If you remove the metaphor from this movie, you don’t have anything else. You have no real story or character motivation, you have a set of people doing a set of things because of the metaphor, not because of their character. Character, by the way, is a term I use loosely because these are not characters. They’re puppets used to keep hammering this metaphor into our heads. The problem with directors who like to do metaphor in this way is that they forget that you have to have something to hide it. You have to have a main story to tell so that if I don’t get your metaphor, I can still watch the movie.
Let’s go to the mall… today [Credit: Laurel Group Inc]
A great example of metaphor done right is George Romero’s film Dawn Of The Dead, that film is a metaphor for consumerist culture overtaking us. That’s what the zombies represent… but if you ignore that you still have an amazing film with a great story, great characters and great dialogue, you’re given a film that you can actually follow that doesn’t require you to study it. Film Study is fascinating, I’ve done it before and it’s absolutely fun to do… but if you HAVE to do it in order to understand the movie then the movie failed in some aspect.
4. Characters Have No Impact
If you go see Mother! then one thing you’re going to notice right away is that Jennifer Lawrence’s character doesn’t actually impact the story, the story happens around her. Same with Javier Bardem’s character, they’re both just there when this story is happening. Sure it’s implied very heavily at the end that this story is happening because Javier Bardem is God and he creates this world again and again and has the same thing happen, but for the run of the movie, it feels like he is just going along with the flow.
Jennifer Lawrence goes around from room to room redecorating a house because that’s what she thinks Javier Bardem wants. When Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris come into the house, she never tells them to go with any actual force. The one time she does, they ignore her and just keep on going like she never said anything. She only really yells “Get out of my house” with actual force after something big has happened and everyone was running outside anyway. She doesn’t choose anything, she doesn’t decide to do anything. Things happen and she happens to be there. The problem with this is that no one likes stories where the main characters do nothing. Stories where the narrative just happens and the main character is walking through it do not work for a mainstream audience. Even if everything happening around them is strange, our main character needs to have some kind of agency in what happens.
She’s looking for the character motivations in mother! [Credit: Disney]
Alice In Wonderland, for example, is a strange movie where a character goes through a strange land and things happen… but she actively takes part in everything. She decides on her own to follow the white rabbit, she decides to drink from the bottle marked ‘drink me’, she decides to help paint the roses red, she is an active participant and makes her own choices. Influenced, certainly, but she still actively makes choices which sometimes includes the choice to ignore the influence, like when she decides to leave the tea party when everyone there tells her to stay. She’s a character that we can follow and identify with, even when the weirdest things imaginable are happening around her.
3. Characters As Tropes
So throughout this piece you’ve noticed that I’ve only referred to the characters by their actor’s names. That’s because the film never named them, Jennifer is listed as “Mother”, Javier is “Him”, Ed Harris is “Man, Michelle Pfeiffer is “Woman”. They’re tropes, not characters. Jennifer is a doting wife who just wants to make her husband happy and that’s it. Javier is a poet who gets inexplicably famous and that’s it. Ed Harris is a sick old man and that’s it. Michelle Pfeiffer is a bitch and that’s it. Those are their characters, they have no real development, they’re just a set of ideas inspired by the metaphor they represent and it doesn’t work.
The original mother! [Credit: Zentropa entertainment]
You know how to make this work? You give them motivation and development like Lars Von Trier did with Antichrist. Antichrist is, essentially, mother! with fewer actors. It’s also an experimental horror film with characters who don’t have names, referred to as ‘her’ and ‘him’. There’s a lot of metaphor in it, largely around the ideas of misogyny and depression that flood through the film but on top of that, there’s a good story. If you pulled out the metaphor and just took the film at face value you have an effective horror film with characters who are developed.
‘Her’ is a woman battling the loss of her child and her attempt to get better leads her in the opposite direction, sending her spiralling into depression and eventually a violent rage. ‘Him’ is a psychiatrist trying desperately to help his partner but slowly becomes the thing that she fears and causes nothing but harm. They’re compelling characters who actively take part in the story and have many layers to them all. Antichrist is more accepted by audiences because it gave them characters they could latch onto and even identify with, mother! denies them that which makes it a lot harder to care.
2. Abrupt Tonal Shift
One of the things a lot of critics have brought up about mother! is that the first part of the film is almost the complete tonal opposite to the second half. They have a point, the first half of the film is quiet and unsettling, but never rises much above that. The second half of the film is an over the top shock fest with some of the most brutal concepts put on celluloid. It’s two separate films with no real transition between them, we just have a sudden explosion of activity and everything goes to hell. Doing a tonal shift like that can throw an audience off balance and make them not like your film because they’ve spent the better part of an hour getting used to your slow unsettling movie and then they’re blasted with violence that they didn’t see coming and it just doesn’t work.
If you want to shift the tone of a film you have to be gradual about it, I refer you back to Antichrist which starts very elegantly and slowly, it feels like a character piece. What happens is that as the film goes on we are introduced slowly to new extremes, like the slapping during rough sex or a scrapbook filled with horrific writings that get’s worse and worse, or even a simple shot of a disembowelled fox saying “Chaos reigns”.
These things slowly transform the tone and mean that by the time we’re up to drilling holes in legs and giving bloody handjobs (Not kidding, that’s in Antichrist. It’s about a decade old so you should’ve seen it by now, but if you haven’t then you MUST see this film) we’ve accepted the shift and we can go along with that more extreme stuff that we wouldn’t have when the film began. You have to build up to this kind of thing or your audience is going to tune out instantly. Without that build, it becomes impossible to follow and you feel like you’ve missed something.
1. Poorly Advertised
The power of editing is a fascinating thing. This trailer is what was used to sell the film and when you watch it, you get this feeling that it’s going to be some film where Javier Bardem is bringing people in specifically to do something disturbing to his wife. It gives off a Rosemary’s Baby vibe where Jennifer is Rosemary and her husband and the rest are all the cult come to impregnate her with some demonic child. That’s obviously not what the film is, but that’s what the film looks like based on the trailer.
They didn’t tell the audience what they were going in to see. If everyone going in had been able to know that this film was a gigantic metaphor and that it’s actually quite slow for a large amount of it, they’d go in with different expectations. Audience expectations do matter… that’s why people went into Sweeney Todd being shocked that it was a musical (Which I still don’t get because the trailer literally shows Johnny Depp singing) because trailers are powerful and if something isn’t spelled out then people might go in with the wrong impression. That’s not to say that you should have to have story points spoiled in the trailer, but it’d be so nice if they could at least clue people into the kind of film they’re going in to see.
So Why Do Critics Like It More Than Audiences?
mother! really is a film that’s designed to be analysed, it’s the kind of film they’ll show in film studies classes to investigate the hidden meaning behind it and a lot of critics absolutely love that kind of thing. They’ll grade films like that much higher because they have this bias towards the films that layer meaning behind what they’re showing. They always want a film to be smart and forget that audiences don’t want to have to know the entire history of the Judeo-Christian faith in order to understand a movie. This disparity is why 70% of audiences liked Hitman’s Bodyguard but only about 40% of critics… because Audiences are OK with a silly Ryan Reynolds film, critics want something a little more high brow.
Audiences are just not looking for a film that’s a giant metaphor without a story of its own. No one want’s to pay 10 bucks to see a film and have to take a test in order to make sure they understood it, that’s not why a lot of us go to the movies and especially not when they’re advertised to us as a more conventional horror film. We want characters we can follow with good motivations, plot lines that make sense, tonal shifts that are understandable in the narrative. We want a film that we can watch, not one we have to study.
Have you seen mother!? Did you like it? Why did you/didn’t you like it?