Either way, audiences clearly felt betrayed -- even insulted -- by some combination of the subject matter, the depiction of violence, or the claustrophobic visual approach. There were gasps, sighs, and multiple walkouts at the screening I attended in the traditionally forgiving neighborhood of Brooklyn. It's that type of a movie, a grisly and wonky work of art that either exhilarates or disgusts you depending on your aesthetic temperament. (Here's a useful test: If you liked the rock-monsters in Aronofsky's previous Biblical epic Noah, then you'll dig this, too; if you couldn't make it past the opening 10 minutes of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, stay far away.)
Paramount, the studio that ponied up the $30 million needed to fund the movie, has offered a full-throated defense of it in the press. "This movie is very audacious and brave," said the company's president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. "You are talking about a director at the top of his game, and an actress at the top 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."
The slight jab at Netflix is telling: Studio executives clearly bristle at the tedious bromides about how all quality storytelling now takes place on cable networks and streaming platforms. I can't think of an original film produced by Netflix or Amazon that has the same combination of tenacity and breadth as mother!, a movie that gleefully swan-dives into a thematic soup of contemporary anxieties, religious allusions, and Greek myths. Aronofsky resists the "theory-heavy" storytelling approached preferred by Reddit obsessives in favor of an absurdist tone that often feels more like theater.
After a summer when too many major studio releases felt like passive experiences, pieces of content meant to fill a release date on a calendar or bridge a gap between sequels, mother! vibrates with wild-eyed purpose. Its poor box office showing makes sense: This is a film that died so we can live.