Opinion: ‘mother!’ shows when cinema goes too far

Trigger Warning: Sexual and physical violence

Warning: I spoil the movie. It may be difficult to fully understand some of what I mean here as I don’t fully explain the plot. Wikipedia has a good summary, if you don’t care to see the movie.

No one has ever made a movie like mother! In terms of craftsmanship, the film is masterful on every single level. The cinematography, editing and sound design all coalesce into a climax that shouldn’t visually work, but somehow does in the most exhilarating of ways. The actors — every single one of them — commit to the story and the “vision” of director Darren Aronofsky. If the Oscars were judged solely based on merit and skill, Aronofsky would be the undeniable Best Director winner.

But it pains me to say all of that because mother! is, at least to me, a deeply horrifying and disgusting film. mother! shows when cinema goes too far.

Aronofsky has a message in his latest film. Well, he has a lot of messages. He comments on humanity both generally and in various specific ways. He shows humanity’s destructive nature on both the individual level and the large scale, through an intimate eye and an epic scope. It’s a message sent and a message received. To some, that message is valuable, and what makes the film so special. In my eyes, it becomes harmful.

Films can absolutely showcase and comment on the terrible aspects of people, on how people can be grossly and horribly damaging. But, as I see cinema, I feel that it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to indict, to firmly make a statement that those things are morally reprehensible, and not just show people being morally reprehensible.

Yet, Aronofsky avoids doing this, specifically in regard to sexual harassment and sexual assault. On many occasions, Jennifer Lawrence’s character is looked at inappropriately, called incredibly offensive things and even groped. Most audiences members, hopefully, will be disgusted by this. And because Aronofsky is making this grander statement that humanity is destructive, for a second, it slips by as another destructive aspect. But there is no indictment. It’s presented as though it’s obvious, as easy to reject. But Aronofsky has the moral responsibility to do the rejecting himself, and he never makes that indictment himself. It’s one thing to show that humanity is destructive. It’s another to indict them for being so.

And that leads me to a larger problem with the way this film presents its commentary. Like I said, it’s stated as obvious. Aronofsky shows us the horrors of mankind as the state of things, as the inner nature of humanity, as inevitable and cyclical. And some may see that as a poignant depiction. In our current times, it’s difficult not to be pessimistic.

But, as I see cinema, a filmmaker can’t just take that stance because a film is inherently subjective. Film is inherently something that the filmmaker presents as their opinion. When Aronofsky offers his opinion — simply, “this is the state of things” — without indictment and without a morality check, it becomes a lazy and regressive opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. A film can end on a pessimistic note. A film can say that things suck and that innocent people are unfairly affected. But — again, this may just be me personally — I have to at least feel that indictment. Think about The Wolf of Wall Street. Some people didn’t like that film because it didn’t sufficiently indict Jordan Belfort for his heinous acts. On the other end, think about Fruitvale Station. The film ends with the tragic death of Oscar Grant at the hands of cops. But the entire film leading up to that point is an indictment of the people and forces in society that could allow for that tragedy to occur.

Indictment can be in theme. It can be in a single moment. It can lie within a single character. It can be presented in its structure or even by a single line of dialogue. Something has to be there. And with mother!, I saw nothing. I felt nothing. Others may have gotten something. But I felt an excessiveness meant to beat us over the head, and I asked “For what cost? Why is this worth it?”

I got no answers.

What I did find, however, was tone deaf male privilege in how Aronofsky approaches his film. Again, filmmakers can make commentary on the poor state of things, and they can use shocking, disturbing and upsetting imagery to do so.

But there’s some imagery that goes too far. There’s some imagery that we should never see, as no message should be worth presenting things so vile — at least in the way that it’s done so here.

As a man, Aronofsky might have given little thought to depicting Jennifer Lawrence’s character being horrifyingly beaten by a crowd, and called a “cunt.” He might’ve thought that it served his message well.

As a man, Aronofsky might have given little thought to depicting a very physical death of an infant. He might’ve thought that it served his message well.

And while, as a man, I don’t personally have connection to these things and I’m not an authority to make a declarative statement, I can understand that there needs to be restraint and extreme care when tackling such content because these are realities and fears of women and mothers. And, as a man, Aronofsky had a responsibility to at least consider his approach because he is not an authority in understanding the impact of those images.

But he presents them so explicitly, directly and viscerally. I don’t know exactly what it is, but there is undoubtedly a way of portraying these things in all three ways, but with a sense of restraint and extreme care, with an awareness that he cannot show these images with singularity. I don’t care how hard it would be to figure out how to do that because it’s his responsibility to.

Some have spoken about how mother! is a subversive studio film, about how critics should think before slamming it as it would discourage a studio from making an original movie that’s so out of the ordinary, that breaks all of the system’s rules.

But I’ll gladly rail against mother! because I don’t want subversive films like this. Movies are more than just their craft. They’re more than just having a message. mother! fails to rectify itself in offensive and embarrassing fashion, and to uphold it as Aronofsky’s masterpiece is, in my opinion, ignorantly ironic. Javier Bardem’s character is a poet and writes a supposed masterpiece. This leads to unbelievable fame that proves incredibly harmful to Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Yet, Bardem’s character shows no care, acknowledgement or awareness of these effects.

In fact, Lawrence’s character literally hands over her heart as she dies so that Bardem’s character can literally restore life from its ashes and do it all again to another woman. He’s not punished. He’s unchanged. It was a moment where Lawrence’s character could’ve rejected him, resulting in indictment and punishment — but Aronofsky is oblivious to that.

Don’t hand over your praise, your hearts to Aronofsky. Don’t let him harm people. Don’t let him do it again. “For the sake of the art” is not a good enough reason.

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