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[Article] – From Psycho to Mother: The Films that Polarised Audiences


Posted October 1, 2017 by

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Upon Cloud Atlas’ release in 2012, critics and audiences alike become polarised between those who considered it to be a step forward in artistic development, and those who condemned it as pretentious, overdrawn banality. The Tom Hanks/Halle Berry vehicle was ambitious to say the least. Adapted from David Mitchell’s mind-bending 2004 novel by the Wachowski siblings (of Matrix fame), the film covers 6 inter-weaving stories, connected by vaguely similar plot points and by the actors playing different roles across the various threads. While the novel divided the 6 tales up succinctly, and Mitchell wrote each one in disparate styles, the 3-hour film depicted the stories happening simultaneously, jumping between them without any ostensible pattern.

It is no wonder that such a lengthy and complex film was received with both acclaim and derision, with Roger Ebert calling it “daring and visionary”, and The Guardian calling it “a giant folly”. The friends I saw it with complained that the film did not quite deliver what they expected, that the connections between the stories were not strong enough, it was hard to keep up with, and that it was not clear what the Wachowskis were trying to achieve overall. But, and this is crucial, it provoked discussion. A lot of it, in fact. And to this day, as a fan of the original book, I cannot decide whether I like the film or not. Am I supposed to like the film? Am I supposed to like any film? Is it more important to be fascinated by a film, rather than to like it? What is the difference?

These brain-destroying questions have haunted me since 2012, and this weekend I saw another film that is provoking the same reaction. Arguably the most divisive film of 2017, mother! sees Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem trying to establish a tranquil, solitary existence within a creaky mansion in the middle of an ethereal countryside. But this existence is disturbed when Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, an obnoxious and insufferably intrusive couple whom Bardem adores but Lawrence despises. Without giving too much away, things escalate to gargantuan proportions. The film takes us through a blood-thirsty fight between the intruding couple’s sons, the arrival of numerous admirers of Bardem’s work who hail him as a prophet, a nauseatingly violent war zone within the house, plunder, murder, hysteria, explosive carnage and, most shocking of all, a cameo from Kristin Wiig!

Is such a distinctive film any good? Well, this is where things get contentious. Most of mother!’s audiences, myself included, went in expecting something along the lines of Darren Aronofsky’s most successful recent production, Black Swan– a dark and disturbing, potentially surreal, exploration of the psyche, and mother! certainly starts off as such before swinging uncontrollably into the realms of the utterly bizarre. If you are an audience member who wants a film that, to coin a phrase, does exactly what it says on the tin, then you will be one of mother!’s critics. You will probably take the side of The Washington Post who condemned the film for being too “outlandish” and find it melodramatic, crude and too random for it to be understood. On the other hand, if, like me, you like a bit of a surprise, mother! will certainly get you thinking. More positive critics have drawn attention to the fact that the film is one massive Biblical allegory. I would also argue that the film has a lot to say about gender roles, femininity and fertility, although that is something for a later essay. While Cloud Atlas explored structure and story-telling, mother! explores the art of allegory and genre-bending in a way that most audiences have never seen.

Such divisive films will have both their fans and their critics, but it is notable that, historically, such films can have tremendous influence. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was arguably the mother! of its day. After a lengthy career in suspense thrillers, Hitchcock had the audacity in 1960 to introduce explicit violence into the cinema. Janet Leigh, naked and defenceless, is unexpectedly stabbed to death in the shower, with that smooth slicing sound of the knife (created by stabbing a melon) leading critics to condemn the repugnance of such an imagination. Even Walt Disney banned Hitchcock from ever filming on Disney property. But, nearly 60 years after such controversy, Psycho is now considered the mother of slasher films, with the Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises of the 70’s and 80’s acknowledging their debt to Hitchcock. In fact, any film that involves a repellent murder, or a sudden diversion into unforeseen storylines, owes much to Psycho. The most contentious and divisive film of today could potentially be the most influential film of tomorrow.

There are other examples of such productions, whose fame has been slow to display itself. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had a similarly tumultuous beginning due to critics’ dislike of the gore on display, but set a new standard for monster-cum-science fiction movies. Kubrick’s The Shining was hit with criticism due to its diversion from the book in terms of both storyline and tone, but now frequently tops many “top horror films” lists. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane started off as provocative due to its non-linear plot structure, and its quick-fire montages and dialogue- a highly unconventional form of film-making in the early 1940’s. The Blair Witch Project was met with some hostility, but now the “found footage” subgenre of horror has reached as far as Cloverfield, Grave Encounters, and even an entire season of American Horror Story. Night of the Hunter’s total lack of success put Charles Laughton off directing for life, but is now synonymous with equally terrifying chase-themed thrillers such as Cape Fear.

My theory is that, if you are one of those people who despised mother! because it seemingly made no sense, you could be condemning what will become one of the greatest films of all time. As Andy Wachowski (now named Lilly) pointed out to critics of Cloud Atlas, when critics “encounter a piece of art they don’t fully understand the first time going through it, they think it’s the fault of the movie or the work of art”. Similarly, perhaps audiences should be implored to go into certain films with a more open mind. Films requiring such thought and openess are so innovative and multi-faceted that they reject the idea that a film should have immediate praise and spoon-fed plot points. Instead, if you, the movie-goer need months, sometimes years, to fully digest and eventually “get” a new film, it could turn out to be one of the greatest visits to the cinema that you will ever make.


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Written by:

Paul Wrench

A Night At The Oscars
Freelance Contributor

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