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Cinema experiences the Mother! of all flops

PUBLISHED: 15:52 03 October 2017

Jennifer Lawrence as Mother. Photo: PA Photo/Paramount Pictures/Niko Tavernise.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mother. Photo: PA Photo/Paramount Pictures/Niko Tavernise.

Praised by critics, damned by audiences, Mother!, a new horror film by Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky has had everyone talking this week. Arts editor Andrew Clarke looks at the clash between critics and cinema fans.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mother and Javier Bardem as Him. Photo: PA Photo/Paramount Pictures/Niko Tavernise.Jennifer Lawrence as Mother and Javier Bardem as Him. Photo: PA Photo/Paramount Pictures/Niko Tavernise.

It’s a question that has frequently been asked when a popular new film, play, album or book has been dismissed by the press: “What’s the use of a critic?” Fans buy the books or download the music regardless, audiences continue to flock to see their favourite actors so do critics still have a role to play? It’s a question that has been brought into sharp focus this week with the release of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s horror-thriller Mother! which was showered with praise by the high-powered broadsheet critics and was damned by everyone else. The BBC’s Caryn James described it as “a pretentious mess” while Rex Reed of the New York Observer said: “This delusional freak show is two hours of pretentious twaddle.”

More importantly it was damned by it’s own audiences. In this age of marketing and data tracking, Aronofsky’s unsettling, subversive, surreal film has committed the only unpardonable sin of alienating the very people who paid for a ticket.

Being controversial is fine, you can sell controversy – “Come along and see what all the fuss is about” – you can sell different – “It’s the movie everyone is talking about. No-one has seen anything like this before” – it doesn’t even have to be good, just different. But, creating a film which will deliberately alienate its core audience is beyond the pale.

What good is a host of five star reviews from august high-flying journals if your mates are posting damning comments on Twitter and Facebook that a film , in this case Mother!, is not just a bad movie but is possibly one of the worst movies of the century.

Solaris, starring George Clooney and Natasha McElhone. Picture: 20th Century FoxSolaris, starring George Clooney and Natasha McElhone. Picture: 20th Century Fox

This is the situation that Darren Aronofsky faces after his film has spent just one week on release. In the USA, the all-powerful market research firm CinemaScore has awarded the film it’s lowest and almost certainly deadly ‘F’ score. These ratings are taken from survey cards filled in by paying multiplex movie audiences.

F for Failure grade is only very rarely given because usually someone, somewhere usually likes the movie, which is why Mother! has grabbed the headlines this week.

Aronofsky is not an unknown filmmaker having created the Oscar-winning Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream but with Mother! he has created a monster.

Part of the problem is that the film is being presented to audiences as one thing and then reveals itself to be something else. It’s being sold as a conventional, mainstream horror movie with mainstream stars, but, what it really is, is an unconventional arthouse film which seeks to unsettle its audience by removing all the conventions that apply to horror movies and to most narrative films. The audience is abandoned in a world of surrealism, suspense and carnage.

Solaris, Starring George Clooney. Picture: 20th Century Fox 

Solaris, Starring George Clooney. Picture: 20th Century Fox

Jennifer Lawrence stars opposite Javier Bardem as a childless couple who reside in a vast, sprawling house in the middle of nowhere.

Late one night Ed Harris turns up and mistakes the residence for a B&B and asks if he can stay the night. This isn’t a problem but things become progressively weirder after his wife, played with carefree abandon by Michelle Pfeiffer, turns up and they proceed to give the young couple lifestyle advice which includes a free sex show thanks to an open bedroom door.

The film becomes increasingly disorientating as Aronofsky lets his imagination and his free-roaming camera run riot. It’s as if he has blended the subject matter of Stephen King with the film-making approach of European mavericks Luis Bunuel and Lars von Trier.

It doesn’t matter that critics like Peter Bradshaw and Mark Kermode adored the film Mother! has clearly been mis-sold. Essentially Aronofsky has made an uncompromising arthouse movie but it’s being marketed as a fun Saturday night out. The critics, who make no such distinctions and are always on the look-out for something different, happily embraced it but they should have noted that anyone expecting a typical horror flick should beware.

Nicolas Cage starring in The Wicker Man 2006. Picture: Warner Bros. Nicolas Cage starring in The Wicker Man 2006. Picture: Warner Bros.

So, have critics outlived their usefulness? Absolutely not. Critics have the ability to compare and contrast simply because of the vast number of movies/books/plays they get to see.

Audiences are enthusiasts – and they have an important role to play – but they don’t have the wide-ranging expertise or, necessarily, the writing skills to compose an entertaining long read.

Equally critics must consider who they are writing for if they want to survive for another 100 years.

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