Before it leaves theaters, I want to weigh in on Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! I’m not so interested in explaining or exploring the film’s allegory and what it means. There is plenty in the movie that is provocative and fascinating (you can find my review of the film here) but for the moment the actual content of Mother! takes a backseat to the implications of its disastrous theatrical release. This film clarified where American cinema and its audience are at this moment and the results aren’t good.
First, we have to acknowledge that Mother!’s release was a failure. As of this writing, the movie has made just over $14 million domestically. That’s not even enough to cover its modest production budget of $30 million. The movie did fairly well at Rotten Tomatoes (68% fresh) but CinemaScore, which polls opening night audience reactions, gave the movie an F.
Why did a generally well-reviewed movie from one of today’s most interesting directors land so badly? I would argue that a film’s theatrical success is not really determined by reviews or by the quality of the movie. Instead, the box office is really a referendum on the marketing campaign. Paramount sold Mother! as a horror picture. It has horrific elements but this was not a movie for the audience that showed up for It and Annabelle: Creation and they probably felt tricked. The wrong crowd was drawn to the theater and they hated it.
Another problem was the release strategy. Many commentators have praised Paramount for opening the movie wide like a blockbuster title. (Mother! played in over 2000 theaters in its first weekend.) While I am happy to see a major Hollywood studio put out such an interesting and daring movie, the wide release was a mistake. Wide releases are fine for mainstream movies or franchise films that have a proven brand name. Mother! was anything but that.
Because of the closing gap between theatrical and home video release dates (and the ever present threat of piracy) there is increasing pressure to get the movie out to the public as quickly as possible. As it is, most releases make about a third of their theatrical gross in the first weekend and make the majority of the total theatrical gross in the first few weeks. Titles are typically gone from cinemas soon after that.
This “open wide” strategy (or “hit-and-run” if you prefer) has become the norm for studio releases over the last three decades. And as Hollywood studios continue to give up on medium budget films in favor of big movies with multi-million dollar production costs they end up treating everything like a franchise title. With Mother!, Paramount tried to put a circular peg into a square hole and it didn’t fit.
Mother! should have been a platform release, which is to say that it opens in a few theaters at a time and gradually expands. That is no guarantee of box office success but it is a much slower release process and—critically for a movie like Mother!—it allows the picture to find its audience. There is a contingent of people who really like this movie, myself among them, but Mother! didn’t reach those people first. Instead, Paramount courted the Friday night audience with a movie that wasn’t made for them.
This brings me to the viewers. It’s easy for me to be cynical here and sound like a snobby critic so I’ll try my best not to.
The mainstream Friday night audience doesn’t come to the theater looking for a challenging cinematic experience. They are interested in entertainment, not art, and that is fine. But it’s hard to be a movie fan and be anything other than discouraged when something special like Mother! gets released and audiences don’t respond. The movie requires effort by the viewer to engage with its visuals and parse out their meaning. I don’t think today’s mainstream audiences are willing to do that. This is partly due to what viewers have been acclimated to expect. Almost all mainstream movies are literal. There isn’t a lot of experimentation with form and style in Hollywood releases or even in the independent film market. I have to speculate that if Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange or David Lynch’s Eraserhead were released today they would probably get an F rating at CinemaScore.
Mother!’s failure is all the more boggling because the internet is full of consumers complaining that Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas. Numerous articles were written in the past four months explaining the depressed summer box office with “franchise fatigue.” Meanwhile, the top grossing movies released so far this year are almost entirely sequels or spinoffs as are the titles presently dominating the box office. But when something really creative and original comes along like Mother! (or something good but not based on a major property like Detroit or Wind River or Logan Lucky) the audience stays home. Remember that when you see the trailer for the next sequel, reboot, or remake. Hollywood isn’t the one hostile to creativity. We are.
The final insult to Mother!’s theatrical release came from its writer and director Darren Aronofsky and lead actress Jennifer Lawrence. The movie is an allegory and Aronofsky and Lawrence decided that the prudent thing would be to explain the symbolism in their press interviews. This is a disastrous decision. The whole point of making an allegory is to let the audience figure it out. I recently spoke to writer Kenneth George Godwin and on the subject of symbols and allegory he said, “To just tell people what [the film is] trying to say, I think [the audience is] going to say, ‘Well, that’s just claptrap and who cares.’ Whereas if you leave it unexplained, then the person can experience the film for themselves.” Godwin is exactly right and that’s precisely what’s happened. Explaining the meaning takes the mystery out of the movie and makes it easy to dismiss as pretentious. As long as the meaning remains open to interpretation, the work inspires the audience to keep talking about it and find things in it that the author may not have intended. This is what sustains great works of art. That necessarily means that the filmmaker loses some control over his or her creation as it goes out into the world. Ironically, I would argue that this is central to what Mother! is about, much more so than Aronofsky’s intended ecological message.
So what are we to make of Mother!? Aronofsky made a bold and fascinating movie that is destined for cult status when it hits the VOD and disc markets. But for all its impressive visuals and big ideas, Mother!’s greatest revelation may be how crippled American movie-going has become. Maybe Hollywood studios don’t know how to sell a movie like this anymore and perhaps there’s no theatrical audience for it. If that’s the case, it’s a shame and it doesn’t bode well for the future of American cinema.