Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rebel in the Rye and mother!

Two Write(r)s That Seem To Make a Wrong (for some, but not me)

                                                        Reviews by Ken Burke
                             Rebel in the Rye (Danny Strong)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): My condensed account of this biography of a small part of novelist J.D. Salinger’s life (roughly 1939 to the mid-1950s) contains probably nothing that would count as a spoiler given the massive amount of information easily available on him so I’m not too worried about giving anything away.  Basically, we follow “Jerry” as he begins to study creative writing at NYC’s Columbia U. under the tough-love-guidance of Whit Burnett, also the editor of Story magazine. Following some initial publishing success prior to being drafted into the Army to fight in Europe during WW II (his intended romance with Oona O’Neill shot down by her marriage to Charlie Chaplin), Salinger’s post-war life is burdened by PTSD along with his refusal to edit his stories according to The New Yorker’s intentions, but all that changes (with the help of Hindu meditation) when Burnett finally prods him to expand a short story about Holden Caulfield into the novel of The Catcher in the Rye, bringing great success along with constant distractions from a new cadre of fans, convinced Salinger’s peering into their souls.  He seeks isolation in rural New Hampshire, marries much-younger Claire Douglas, has 2 children with her even as he decides against further publication of his works now written only to satisfy his own creative/spiritual needs.  

 There’s no attempt here to put the focus on Salinger’s prose (no scenes of literary critics analyzing it or readers exploring their attractions or the acting out of passages from his works); it’s all about who this young genius was, what his motivations/influences were, his difficulty with relationships (except his supportive mother), and his sense of integrity about his writing despite the frustration he caused for his devoted fans.  Reviews of Rebel … are mostly dismissive, but I’ll recommend it anyway (although it's a difficult film to find) as a touching tribute to a giant of 20th century literature.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: ⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐  OK, continue on if you like.

What Happens: In this docudrama about a small portion of Jerome David Salinger’s life (Jerry to his family and friends back then, J.D. to the rest of us now, played here by Nicholas Hoult) we find him in 1939 (at age 20) determined to attend Columbia University to study creative writing with Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey)—also the editor of the notable Story magazine.  Jerry’s father, Sol (Victor Garber), sees literature as providing no future for his son (later he offers this insult: “What makes you think you have anything to say to people?”),* insisting he work instead as a kosher butcher, but his mother, Marie (Hope Davis), supports her son in his emerging passion although he’s yet to prove to anyone (especially Burnett) he has the ability to turn potential into nuanced-talent.  With some proper prodding from willing-mentor-Whit, though, Jerry’s soon able to get his first short story, “The Young Folks,” into good enough shape to submit it to Story, although Burnett rejects it (seemingly; actually, he keeps it until he’s convinced Jerry’s a true writer, not a one-hit-wonder, then surprises him with publication and his first small professional payment).  As Salinger gains more confidence he attempts to break the difficult barrier into The New Yorker, receiving several rejections until they show interest in “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” featuring obstinate teenager Holden Caulfield (based liberally on Jerry), but he resists their notes for changes (he feels they’re too sentimental), then they put the piece in mothballs as “too frivolous” after the U.S. enters WW II.

 Jerry’s also having some difficulty getting as close as he’d like to Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), daughter of famed playwright Eugene O’Neill, but when he volunteers for the Army (as shown in Rebel ..., although other sources say he was drafted) she promises to wait for him until war’s end; however, that doesn’t work out as planned with Jerry shocked by a newspaper story about her marriage to much-older Charlie Chaplin while he’s in England training for the 1944 D-Day invasion, an event we don’t see directly but there are quick visual references to battlefield deaths and concentration camp prisoners as his unit makes its gruesome way through France into Germany.

*Even later in this narrative's flow Dad tells Jerry how as a young man he wanted to be a pianist but his rabbi father forbid it (again demanding stability), so this sort of intimidation runs in the family.

 As we slowly put together how various blue-toned, voice-over scenes periodically interrupt the continuity of the rest of this film’s chronology, we understand the war was brutal for Jerry forcing him to spend some time in a V.A. hospital trying to deal with his flashbacks, depression, overall PTSD challenges, even as his intended literary career’s not going so well either as Burnett’s unable to get funding for his promised publication of Salinger’s anthology of short stories, leading to estrangement between them just as Jerry confounds his family with a surprise marriage to German Sylvia Weiter (Anna Bullard), a diversion soon ended in divorce. Then, the long-delayed New Yorker publication of the Caulfield story followed by their acceptance of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” along with an offer of first-refusal on anything else he’d write, Salinger finally (with encouragement from a Hindu guru) follows through on expanding Holden Caulfield’s school-expulsion-travails into a novel which will become a huge best-seller in 1951 for Little, Brown and Company.  However, the success of the book brings out a parade of loonies who see themselves in Holden, encouraging Salinger to move to 90 acres of rural land in Cornish, NH where he pulls his own Chaplin act by marrying considerably-younger Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton), later the mother of his 2 children but also his ex-wife by 1967, although Rebel in the Rye attempts little further exploration of Salinger’s life after the 1950s by which time he’s insisted to his long-time agent (as well as long-suffering, given his non-cooperation with publishers), Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson), he’s now content to write only for his own inner explorations so he no longer wants anything distributed to the public.*

*Here’s an interesting anecdote appropriate to Rebel … : As the film concluded at the marvelous old Albany (CA) Twin Theatre for the screening I attended the credits music continued but the screen went black, as if the ghost of Salinger prevented us from seeing anything else about his life, even who played him in the film.  An employee there told me the projector’s been periodically doing that with this film despite no understanding by anyone as to why it’s happening so there’s another example of what oddities can happen when we trade in the centuries-old-technology of celluloid projection for machines using video and computers (yet, I still think Salinger’s involved somehow).

So What? What I don’t know about J.D. Salinger could easily fill a 106-minute-film* (Rebel … will do) because beyond my awareness of The Catcher in the Rye—which I read so long ago I don’t really remember much about it—that despite his fame from such a seminal novel he remained a reclusive, mostly-unpublished author of new fiction for the rest of his long life (born 1919, died at his rural retreat in 2010), and knowing he was  fictionalized as Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) in my favorite baseball-themed-movie, Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989), I’ve never bothered to learn more (nor felt any particular need to).  As such, for me Rebel in the Rye faces the same challenge any biographical book or film does: making a subject interesting even if your potential audience knows little about the object of your narrative, just as Burnett tells his freshmen writing students what makes a successful story is the use of compelling situations and details, with the author’s distinct voice enhancing those elements (as does a film director’s individual style) but first the interesting story elements need to exist or all the style in the world won’t draw in the reader. Again for me (but not for many critics of this film; see the next section below) such a need is well met in Rebel in the Rye because I didn’t hope to finally see how The Catcher in the Rye could be put on screen (never has been, probably won’t be as long as Salinger’s estate has anything to say about it); instead, I wanted to know more about the author of J.D.’s impactful book, which I got a useful introduction to in this biopic, giving me some better understanding of who the man was who brought Holden Caulfield to life in his modern classic (in looking over biographies of Salinger I see how the usual fictionalization of history’s a bit in effect here but I don’t find crucial fabrications nor omissions undermining what Strong has written/directed, even if it’s mostly in awe of his subject).  

*If you’d like more about Salinger than Rebel … has time to present, this extensive site should prove useful (please roam around in it) but you might also want to consult this more concise one.

 Another challenge to a filmmaker attempting to bring an historical subject to life—especially one with such limited public appearances directly available (forcing us to depend on biographies by those who knew him, histories by those who’ve researched him)—is finding some manner of crafting this portrait so we’d want to actually meet this person, get to know/understand/appreciate him (or her, as the case may be) in a more engaging manner.  Salinger would definitely make for an intriguing act of conversation about life in general, although I wonder if he’d really want to talk specifically about his art or his creative process (he certainly didn’t want to do so with his adoring public as presented in Rebel …, finally building a high fence around his already-isolated-home to keep out the curious “worshipers” who saw too much of Holden Caulfield in themselves [a similar-yet-opposite situation comes up in our next review {mother!} where the famous-poet protagonist forbids access to his private study {the “Holy of Holies” you could say once you’ve read the review} by boarding up its door, although he’s quite open to adoring fans roaming through, then destroying the rest of his home]); however, Jerry’s mentor, Whit Burnett, could talk all day on literature but he sums it up in this film with simply: “Imagine the book that you would want to read, then go write it.”

 I'm sure my much-more-well-read-than-I-am wife, Nina, agrees with that advice wholeheartedly, especially since she’s in an ongoing nonfiction workshop which has opened up another aspect of creativity for her, despite her admission of how difficult writing can be in properly conveying what you wish to share with a reader.  (I fully understand that problem, with gratitude to the Internet I don’t have to be as eloquent as Salinger to be able to also reject the intense chore of editing originally expected of him [Holden was considered “too negative” to appeal to readers], sparing me the need to submit my rambling reviews to any reputable publication’s extensive notes for revision.)

Bottom Line Final Comments: Wow, is this ever an instance where my perception of a film is completely at odds with the critical establishment (not that such a difference makes me wrong—that could never happen, of course—but it just shows how subjective criticism in and of the arts can be) because my response to Rebel in the Rye is quite gracious regarding approach and content whereas reviews as a whole have been largely negative, bitterly so at times (maybe these other folks feel they have more of an investment in Salinger than I do so they’re being more protective of their feelings about an enigmatic literary legend; however, I still don’t feel this film is of such a pedestrian, mediocre quality as their responses indicate), with those surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes offering only 31% positive* reviews while the normally-more-restrained-commentators at Metacritic are surprisingly, noticeably more generous but still with just an average 46% score (more details on both of these in the Related Links section far below), putting my 4 stars in the stratosphere by comparison (of course actual stars are light years away beyond that layer of Earth’s atmosphere, but I’m still in a much more positive zone than most of my critical compatriots).  For example, a guy whose analyses I generally admire, James Berarinelli, says: “The film offers little more depth about the writer than his Wikipedia article and considerably less than one would get from reading the semi-autobiographical The Catcher in the Rye.” (He’s one of the naysayers despite his 2.5 of 4 rating [see footnote] so maybe any discrepancies with the RT designations can be traced to reviewers offering higher scores than their own harsh comments imply).  On the other hand, another critic whose opinion I generally trust, Richard Roeper from the Chicago Sun-Times, offers one of RT’s few positive critiques: “With ‘Rebel in the Rye,’ we get a solid, well-acted and basically standard biopic about the man who created Holden Caulfield, largely in his own image.”

*35 of the Tomato-tossers' 51 current reviews of this film are what they call “Rotten,” that is they have an overall negative tone, yet of those critics who offered some sort of rating (not all do) there are 6 that fall within the reviewers’ C range (70-79% in traditional academic scoring) while 2 more (including Berarilnelli's) were given 2.5 of 4 (63%) by their authors, all of which are higher numbers than what RT uses to apply its overall Rotten designation to a film (anything under 60% positive of the total reviews)—yet one Rebel … analysis (Jordan Hoffman of the Guardian) that offered 3 of 5 (60%) is categorized as “Fresh” by the RT compilers while another (Sarah Boslaugh from either Playback:stl or theartsstl [confusion there as well]) is also counted as Fresh even with her 4 of 10 score (which I don’t see anywhere when reading her full review).  While I don’t agree with studio execs who blame poor box-office-performance on the impact of their films’ Tomato status (see my remarks about such in the Bottom Line Final Comments in my review of Beach Rats [Eliza Hittman] in our September 13, 2017 posting), I do see these seeming anomalies regarding … Rye as somewhat supporting the confusion as to how the RT staff deems each review as positive or not.

 While all this blather about ratings merely shows how subjective they are in the minds of the various critics who produce them (likewise, audience responses to the films in question are equally subjective with no true standard of right or wrong, just privately-held-opinions which do or don’t gather support), what really resonates with me are what Salinger’s mentors say about the purpose of writing (or any other art): Whit Burnett wants to know “Why do you want to write?” while Swami Nikhilananda (Bernard White) answers this for Jerry: “You write to show off your talent or to express what’s in your heart.”  Our protagonist wants to minimize the former (renouncing further publication of his fiction), immerse himself in the latter while writing to be truthful (finding salvation in the work, rather than the praise given to it by others), all of which brings me to my Musical Metaphor (my final word on the particular film under review, seen from the perspective of an aural artform) which my instincts tell me must be Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” (from her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon album) at (from a 1970 BBC concert), with its sweet story about a successful musician who performs “for fortunes And those velvet curtain calls [… because she’ll] play if you have the money Or if you’re a friend to me [but she’s impressed by a clarinetist out on the street who] was playing real good, for free [yet] Nobody stopped to hear him Though he played so sweet and high They knew he had never been on their TV So they passed his music by.”  

 This street musician isn't even sharing his talent in hopes of getting donations (as most buskers do), just immersing himself in his art for the self-satisfaction of the process, not to earn transport in a “black limousine” as Salinger apparently wanted to do as well, writing only for his own sense of accomplishment rather than the accolades of the public (to cite another song [George and Ira Gershwin, 1937]: “Nice work if you can get it And you can get it if you try”—if that trying results in an international bestseller affording you the financial stability to shut yourself off from the world, finding a type of spiritual peace in your art, a situation providing us a segue into the next review).

 Moving on from the subjective realms of ratings and Musical Metaphors, my original intention with this posting was to start with mother!, given it’s playing on a couple thousand domestic (U.S.-Canada) screens whereas Rebel …’s only on 49 of them after 2 weeks in release, taking in a paltry $144,377 so far (I’m sure those mostly scathing reviews haven’t helped a bit) so I was going to confine it to one of my condensed Short Takes structures, but after I saw some parallels in these films regarding a major artist working against some form of writer’s block, a need for isolation to protect/inspire the creative process, a distinct stance on the importance of fan adulation in the writer’s life, and the results of how these writers faced their situations I felt it necessary to devote more space to each film with Rebel … leading off as it’s the more traditional, accessible approach to these issues while mother!’s in another world entirely (literally!).  So, on to our next review, about another famous author (a fictional one, this time, although that categorization takes on a deeper meaning when the film’s explication’s in place) who also has problems with maintaining his career but once the obstruction is conquered the last thing he wants is isolation from that legion of fans.

    mother! (Darren Aronofsky)    (you may think I’m crazy, but ⇒)

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): It may be a bit of a spoiler to state bluntly this film’s a symbolic statement from its scriptwriter-director, but before anyone sees this assault on the senses he/she needs to know what’s being shown here shouldn’t be taken literally lest they storm out of the theater before even realizing what this weirdness is all about.  With that in mind, the little I can say in my non-spoiler-account is we observe a nameless couple living in a huge-but-isolated-home which she’s still in the process of renovating while he’s a poet struggling to rediscover his creative spark (she’s also bothered by strange noises along with oddities in the house, but this is no standard horror movie so don’t expect something to just come jumping out of the walls).  Their situation then gets more complicated when another couple tries to take up residence with them (the poet insists, his wife resists) which leads to increasing trouble, especially for the wife who finds her life’s become more traumatically-complicated than she could ever imagine.  Other reviews make mention of such horror standards as Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining in reference to mother! (no typo; that’s how the title seems to be intended), past experiences which may have some relevance but probably not as much as this director’s own previous work in Black Swan and Noah, which may give you some clearer idea as to whether you’re willing to risk your ticket money on this film or not.  

 If you can conscientiously read around my marked spoiler remarks below (difficult, as there's lots of “off-limits” material to navigate around), getting a better understanding of what Aronofsky’s doing with this most-unique-presentation, I’d hope you do so in order to see if my overall encouragement to at least consider seeing mother! makes any sense to your sensibilities or not.  If so, by all means check it out becausestrange, disturbing beast that it isyou'll find it in theaters most everywhere.

Here’s the trailer:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
What Happens: (Please note that this film is an allegory, not a straightforward fictional story so if these plot details sound crazy at times just understand it’s all part of the director’s intention which will be explored more in the other sections of this review.) We begin with strange images (in retrospect, we’ll understand this is all part of the cinematic strategy here) including Him (Javier Bardem)—no one in this film’s given a conventional name; in fact, you have to wait for the credits to learn any names at all—placing a small crystal onto a little stand, followed by shots of a decaying house reversing into livable shape as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up, searches for husband Him, who’s a famous poet suffering from writer’s block (Sound like something else you’ve read recently?) causing tension between them as she’s committed herself to personally renovating their huge home, isolated in the countryside, to allow him the space to re-kindle his artistry even as she longs for children despite Him no longer being intimate with her.  We also see she suffers from occasional ugly spells of dizziness/sickness which she soothes with a mysterious yellow liquid; sometimes she also seems to have an organic connection with the house as she leans on its walls while we see cutaway shots of what seems to be a semi-abstracted beating heart (much of the overall imagery’s presented in a manner to be difficult for the viewer, with constant grainy-closeups of Lawrence’s face, swirling camera movements, choppy edits, all of which keep us off-balance).  

 As if this isn’t strange enough (along with occasional disturbing noises implying this film will take some sort of home-invastion-Amityville Horror [Stuart Rosenberg, 1979—followed by numerous {almost countless} sequels/remakes] direction), events get weirder with the arrival one night of Man (Ed Harris), claiming to be a doctor mistakenly here looking for a B & B, coughing terribly (yet still stepping outside to smoke), admitting finally he’s a big fan of Him’s work, carrying his picture.  Despite Mother’s initial hesitation, Him offers Man a room in their home, then later attends to him when he’s retching into the toilet; the next day we know we’re now in surreal territory when she tries to unplug the stopped-up-toilet, only to find some ugly, fleshy organism in it before it flushes away.

 From here, everything gets increasingly unpredictable, then hostile with the sudden appearance of Man’s wife (Can you guess?), Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose pushy, belittling remarks to Mother (especially about her lack of children and questions about her sex life) raise a tension this “guest” hardly notices as she continues to down her spiked lemonade (leaving quite a mess in the kitchen); these visitors leave a brief-but-false-impression of some sort of Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) demonic-cult with them and Him against Mother, a frequent reference in many reviews I’ve read (even as Mother hoped to rebuild their damaged home in order to “make a paradise”).  Him’s ongoing hospitality disappears, though, when Man and Woman go into his private study—against Mother’s admonitions—accidently breaking his precious crystal (which he says is his inspirational talisman, found in the ruins of a fire that previously destroyed all his worldly goods), then they go to their room to have sex.  Before they can leave, though, suddenly their adult children show up with Oldest Son (Domhnall Gleeson) complaining his father’s will cuts him out so he fights with Younger Brother (Brian Gleeson), injures him then runs away, leaving Him, Man, and Woman to take the bleeding boy to the hospital while Mother mops up the blood, but it leaves a small hole in the floor.  

 When Mother goes to see what’s seeped into the basement she finds a lot of blood creeping down the wall, leading her to discover a hidden door into a previously-unknown cellar room (but nothing comes of this, despite the use of usual-horror-movie-tropes implying she’s about to release some sort of demon).  While alone at the house, Mother’s shocked by the return of Oldest Son but he quickly leaves; when the others come back they’re distraught because Younger Brother’s dead, with the house soon filled by mourners for a wake (Him delivers a poetic eulogy), causing more distressful problems for Mother brought to a climax when she keeps telling people not to sit on the kitchen sink counter only to be challenged in that demand until it breaks, spewing water all over the place resulting in everyone but the home’s owners to finally be sent away.  Mother complains to Him about their lack of sex which he then quickly makes up for on the stairway to their bedroom.⇐

⇒The next morning she’s as giddy as was Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler (Vivian Leigh)—read a plot summary of Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) if necessary—after her husband, Rhett Butler imposed his “marriage privileges” on his wife, Mother telling Him she’s now pregnant (Scarlett was too but lost her potential 2nd child due to miscarriage), which inspires Him to write again as she flushes away her yellow medicine.  Time passes in the wink of a cut between shots, with Mother very far along toward impending birth while Him continues to write furiously (with pen and ink on what seems to be parchment paper), finishing his work to her acclaim even as his agent simultaneously calls with the good news of positive public reception.  Mother prepares a marvelous celebratory dinner for the 2 of them, interrupted by the arrival of strangers in adulation of the book-length-poem’s mastery with Him preoccupied by his acolytes, Mother in consternation over these strangers infiltrating her kitchen, bathroom, the entire house (more trauma haunts Mother who covered the spot with a rug where Younger Brother was wounded, but blood stains continue to ooze up from the floor through this carpet).  Him’s publisher, Herald’s (Kristen Wiig), there as well for the festivities, but as the house becomes overrun Mother calls for the police; without warning, the entire situation turns to deadly chaos with the crowd tearing the house apart for pieces of Him’s dwelling, a riot ensuing as cops arrive with the violence leading to what appears to be war scenes, POW imprisonment, Herald casually shooting bound prisoners in the head as total insanity reigns with Mother and Him finally finding refuge in his study where she painfully delivers her baby son.⇐ 
⇒Him notes the crowd’s calmed down in anticipation of seeing the newborn; Mother refuses to even let Him hold the child, but when she eventually dozes he brings the baby out to his huge flock of followers who tear the child apart, eating his flesh.  At this point, Mother’s had enough of these atrocities so she attacks members of the crowd, suffers a brutal counterattack until saved by Him, then goes to the basement to spill furnace oil onto the floor, sets it afire destroying the house and all in it—except in the next scene as she’s burned badly, on the verge of death, Him’s unharmed, wanting the last bit of her love for him which she, exhausted, allows, so he pulls out her heart which he grips until it crystalizes; he puts the new talisman on that same small stand as the house reconstitutes itself, a new Mother (Laurence Leboeuf) awakening to start the cycle all over again.⇐

So What? Aronofsky—a self-proclaimed-atheist—likely will maintain his well-earned-non-endearment to devout Jews and Christians with this latest work, building on his controversial approach to an Old Testament (or Torah, if you prefer) patriarch in his previous feature, Noah (2014; review in our April 3, 2014 posting [with my now-much-reviled-lousy-layout that’s not worth reformatting]), which turns that ancient tale into a contemporary interpretation of military-industrialist-carnivores desecrating the planet so the Almighty decides to purge his creations, leaving only environmentally-conscious-vegetarians to reboot after surviving the massive flood (as well as presenting Noah as a manifestation of righteous indignation, initially determined even his own family should die once the flood waters have receded so God can start totally fresh with only animals and plants populating the planet).  While a combination of interpretations of mother! (you’ll also find it written about with the “m” capitalized, but I’m going with how I understand the official posters) in this review’s next section below will better explicate how Aronofsky and various analysts interpret this film, I’ll summarize it here by saying that ⇒Lawrence’s character is intended to represent Mother Earth—or Mother Nature—abandoned by her spouse, ravaged by her inhabitants (with the house symbolizing the planet itself), while Bardem’s Him is God (but more so the manifestation Jews know as Yahweh, Christians as God the Father rather than the complicated later concept of the Trinity), especially in his obsession with being loved by his followers, offering salvation to them despite their many sins although Mother’s being devastated in the process.  While Mother Earth’s more of a concept from other religious traditions (the Bible basically presents the planet as just a vehicle for the use—but not abuse—of mankind), the Judeo-Christian scriptures get their due in most of the other aspects of mother! (except the re-emergence of a new Mother in a reconstituted house at the end, more akin to the destruction/resurrection cycles of Hinduism).⇐

⇒If you follow the aspects of the interpretations noted above and in the Related Links below for this film, you’ll see Harris and Pfeiffer’s Man and Woman as Adam and Eve (the scene where he’s sick over the toilet shows him with a rib-area-wound, the organic-grotesquery in the toilet the next day also implies a removed body part; her haughtiness has been understood by some explicators as the arrogance that led Eve to believe the serpent about the famed apple in Eden rather than following the previous dictate of God), their sons as Cain and Abel (with the elder killing the younger, the stain of the crime continuing to haunt the house/planet), the broken sink as Noah’s flood, Mother’s child as Christ not only killed by his zealous followers but also consumed (as Christian tradition decrees in many denominations) as the body and blood of the Savior, and—most importantly, to Him at least—the heart of Mother (the essence of God’s creations) turned once again into an inspirational object enabling this honored poet (who, after all, is supposed to have dictated the Torah to Moses) to find inspiration although it’s to be in restricted access except under His supervision (just as the apple on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was forbidden to Adam and Eve in Eden).  Of course, when you put all of this together in mother! you find Him/God incapable of using his impactful, poetic voice until Mother’s about to bring forth their greatest collaboration (mankind’s needed intercessor) and so absorbed with the needed worship of his constantly-growing-army of followers that he reneges on his promises to his bride, allows the home she’s painstakingly prepared for him to be destroyed, willingly sacrifices his precious son all for his greater glory while his followers unleash private obsessions, war, and pestilence upon the home that Mother feels she must finally destroy with a fossil-fuel-fire, prior to Him starting the whole scenario over again with yet-another-abandoned-heart from a spouse destined for another death.⇐

 If you’re open to visually-impactful-allegories, condemnation of the greed leading often to warfare which has decimated humankind from our earliest days, pleas to abandon such grotesque understandings of our existence as the only means of human-based-salvation, and rejection of the stifling-aspects of religion that have limited our true spiritual/ethical evolution then I think you’d find mother! to be a challenging, yet fascinating allegory for our times.  If you’re offended by either its premises or its horrid depictions of human behavior—as well as feeling ripped-off if either the trailer or the early scenes of mother! leaves you with a sense of a haunted house but with no follow-up in traditional horror-movie-fashion—this film will likely be a complete waste of your time and money.

Bottom Line Final Comments: My initial reaction to mother! was that this collection of unsympathetic characters—except for Mother, who’s so emotionally abused by her adoration-seeking-husband then physically attacked by his increasing-crowd of willing worshipers (attaching his picture to the stairwell wall in a ritual evocative of the holy cards of Jesus and the saints I knew from my Catholic upbringing [a “sacred” version of baseball cards that in past years came wrapped with bubble gum]) she’s to be pitied, then almost wept for as she (in her decimated final state) willingly gives up her last gift, her heart, to this constantly demanding presence she’s already lost everything else for—operating in an environment intended to resemble Hell on Earth is just too overblown, even for Aronofsky (even though I’ve enjoyed the Expressionist/Surrealist aspects of most of his previous features: Pi [1998], Requiem for a Dream [2000], The Wrestler [2008], most especially Black Swan [2010] my choice for #1 of that year; conversely, I’ve admitted I had some problems with Noah, while as I vaguely recall The Fountain [2006] it was too spacey even for me but I really can’t remember it very well so I’ll just stay neutral on that one).  However, as with Noah—where I contemplated on it, researched about it a bit more then found it to be more impressive than I first thought by the time I actually wrote the review—I’ve experienced increasing-after-the-fact-respect for mother!, but I realize my modified response doesn’t speak to other viewers’ experiences as explored in this report nor this representative review, both emphasizing the negative aspects.

 Nevertheless, the critical establishment as a whole leaned toward the positive side (69% praiseworthy reviews at RT, another surprising-but-this time-just-slightly-higher 74% score at MC)—with much praise for Lawrence’s powerful performance*—although audiences seemed to have been swayed by either negative reviews they encountered, the mistaken assumption this is just another creepy horror film, or a genuine interest in other fare as mother! pulled in a paltry $7.5 domestic millions (plus another $6 million overseas) for its opening weekend despite playing in 2,368 theaters (even its renown-name-brand-stars weren’t much help: the Cinemascore responses from audiences exiting last weekend’s screenings gave it a rare F grade) vs. the successes of the true horror movie It (Andres Muschietti), still climbing at $372.3 million worldwide so far at #1 last weekend, or the also-debuting action-adventure American Assassin (Michael Cuesta) at #2 with about $21 million worldwide.  ⇒Maybe the viewer response to mother! would have been heartier if potential-attendees had known better what Aronofsky was up to by having read this analysis or this one (even better detailed) beforehand—although Aronofsky’s best defense may be his own explanation “If we want something new at the movies,” he said, “you give them something new and they say, ‘What the hell is that?’ The more these films can succeed, the more chance we can get weird ones made.”—but even if we'd read all about the director’s intentions it’s very probable this presentation is religiously/culturally-insensitive enough to still turn off the moviegoing-masses.  

*While I respect all she’s accomplished in her career since 2006 I still think it was too early for Lawrence to get a Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012; review in our December 28, 2012 posting) when much better performances did and will continue to come her way (such as this one, which may catch 2017-Oscar-nomination-attention if this film’s not too early in the release season [or too loathed because of poor response], possibly pushed away by the more recent impact of performances seen in November, December, or even January just before initial voting occurs) especially because she was up against the fabulous Emmanuelle Riva for Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012; review in our January 24, 2013 posting—great cinema nominated for, but lost, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay; it won for Best Foreign Language Film).

 Beyond the sociopolitical message, though, how effective is this film as a viewing experience?  In my always-superior-opinion (?), it works quite well in that a dual sense of curiosity/tension’s built up nicely from the beginning so the house is an enigma, reconstituting itself from a situation of shambles into something under repair but already with attractive elements even as it seems to hide a menacing presence with those shots of a beating heart (evolving from robust red to withered black as the story progresses), implying the house is alive, possibly as a malicious agent of doom or holding something terrifying in that hidden basement chamber.  As the unsettling elements shift to the strange appearance of Man and Woman, then their sons, with the even-odder-embrace of these disruptive characters by Him, our sense of doom is heightened, especially with Mother’s periodic illness spells which are quelled by the unexplained yellow liquid.  ⇒Once the crisis with Younger Brother’s death has passed, followed by the momentary euphoria of Mother’s pregnancy/Him’s spontaneous literary inspiration/the jump-cut across the months it takes for her to be almost at term with the baby as Him finally finishes his latest opus (immediately made odd by the book-length-work seemingly just on 1 large sheet of paper, the agent calling with reports of published success even as Mother’s just had a chance to read the freshly-done-poem), we’re overwhelmed by craziness in plot devices paralleled with paranoia by Mother as the crowds continue to grow, vying for her husband’s attention (just as he bathes in the glow of their adoration), then occupying their home even as they destroy it for little souvenirs (like relics of the True Cross or a saint’s bone fragments) with the final descent into chaos of riots, prison camps, various atrocities of physical abuse, all of which could easily make us yearn for the simple frights of a traditional horror movie.⇐

⇒By the time it all goes up in flames we assume we’ve reached the end of the line for not only all of these mad characters but also the human race in general (as the Biblical implications of what’s been building up become expressly-manifest with the death and ingestion of Mother’s child),⇐  we sense Aronofsky’s clearly returned to further Biblical allegory with its prophecy of “the fire next time” (see New Testament’s Second Epistle of Peter, Chapter 3to follow up on his destructive flood story about human lust for consumption gone tragic in Noah, but that’s not the case at all when we realize the undamaged Him is more than we bargained for, both in his ability to come through the destructive fire unscathed and his need to then take the only remaining life-element of dying Mother so He can fashion it into another inspirational-crystal, allowing this whole tragedy to replicate itself (into eternity?) all for His benefit, not for anyone else he sucks the life—and love—from in this aberration of what love, life, and life’s continuity are supposed to be about.⇐   It’s a harsh view of a deity, but despite millennia of attempts by devotees of these scriptures to interpret the accounts of God in the Old Testament as a loving, forgiving, generous Father (as Him keeps presenting himself in mother!) it’s still difficult for me to reconcile that with the supposedly-equal passages of condemnation, vengeance, strict laws that allow no deviation, as well as sanctioned warfare against the enemies of the uniquely-covenanted-people. (But still, Happy Rosh Hashanah!)  

 Maybe it’s my inclination (as a lapsed [far gone, actually] Catholic) to agree with what Aronofsky’s saying in this dual condemnation of a God who revels in the adoration/sacrifices of his followers along with human creations of such a cosmic presence who abuse the planetary home so lovingly prepared for our existence, instead treating it like hedonistic rock musicians trashing a hotel room simply for emotional release, the same sort of physical violence taken to higher levels resulting in homicides, inter-societal brutality, war, destructions of the environment itself that seem to call forth responses from nature with natural disasters (such as have devastated the Caribbean, Mexico, the U.S., other parts of the Earth lately) as the planet seemingly seeks to cure itself from our infestation.

 Yet, with all the above as consideration, I still had an easy time picking a Musical Metaphor for mother! because Aronofsky did it for me with by using the old Skeeter Davis song, “The End of the World” (from her creatively-titled-1963-album Skeeter Davis Sings The End of the World) under the closing credits although with a somber version by Patti Smith; her dirge-like-rendition of this tune doesn’t seem to be available, though, so I’ll turn all the way back to Skeeter in 1963 at (an appropriate video to use here relative to mother!'s situations of destruction given its terrible visual quality—the audio’s fine, though—along with Skeeter's sad visage [enhanced by that hairdo, something I well remember on so many of the girls during my high school years of 1963-’66 before the bouffants finally got straightened out later in the decade], all of which goes along with the fatalist implications of the song;  by the way, if you want variations on this theme you can also find renditions on YouTube by such artists as Davis contemporaries Brenda Lee and Herman’s Hermits or increasingly more contemporary versions by The Carpenters, Anne Murray, and Susan Boyle—just don’t get this song confused with R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” or, a more reasonable mix-up, Patti Smith doing U2’s “Until the End of the World”).  As Smith turns this song into a haunting ballad appropriate to mother!’s disturbing mood the lyrics become very appropriate when applied to the film’s characters representing God and Mother Earth, in asking why the planet’s sun, sea, birds, stars are all “the same as it was […] How life goes on the way it does [… because] it’s the end of the world It ended when you said goodbye,” ⇒so Mother’s heart must be used to bring it all back again for God’s self-absorbed-satisfaction.  Certainly this isn’t likely to be shown at church-recruitment-camps anytime soon,⇐  but for at least some of us it speaks to past and current horrors that need to be addressed, which Aronofsky’s done very brutally well here although I doubt his message will make much impact given how off-putting the imagery and plot lines are for a good many viewers.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about Rebel in the Rye: (4:59 interview with director Danny Strong and actors Nicholas Hoult, Zoey Deutch) and (15:17 Q & A with these same 3 plus Kevin Spacey and other associated with the film)

Here’s more information about mother!: (not much hereor anywhere else—so you might benefit from this one as well: (11:35 enthusiastic analysis of what’s going on in this film along with lots of clips illustrating these speculations on what it all means) followed by (in my recommendation) (3:02 a scene analysis by Aronofsky himself when Man and Woman’s sons arrive at the troubled home, in which he briefly explains his intended concepts and shooting methods)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*YouTube keeps deleting links to this Eagles performance so I keep putting a newer version back in but you’ll just find dead links in our previous postings prior to July 6, 2017, so don’t be confused.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 18,065; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:


  1. Clearly mother! is a gripping, well acted and nicely produced film that suffers a little in the screenwriting department. Or maybe it's the audience that suffers but in an engaging and memorable manner.

    Of all films I can remember, this one depicts a hell on earth that is extraordinarily difficult to watch much less ignore. But getting there is the heart of the matter, especially for someone like me who routinely takes these in cold for full effect. Maybe not this time, since I was convinced mother was a modern day Rosemary's Baby with the Devil himself as the lead. Even when the film diverged from the earlier formula, I still missed the point by a large margin, especially since I was ready to get out of there and missed the credits. Luckily(?), Ken's review pulled it back with an Old Testament God's disdain for sinning humans. Either way, it seems clear the film is unlikely to maintain momentum; I viewed it in one of the nicest theaters in San Antonio with three others, although it is still playing widely.

    Certainly, Jennifer Lawrence was excellent (and probably did deserve her awards for Silver Lining if for nothing else than her raw talent, charisma and instant stardom) while the rest of the cast also rose to the occasion. This one will be hard to forget and could snag some awards of its own. For my musical interlude, how about Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction, perhaps just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your useful comments on mother!, which is, I agree, is a hard film to watch but might gather more interest if more people could be persuaded to see it before it likely soon disappears. Good choice for a Musical Metaphor, very appropriate. Ken