Timeliness is not something that Watch.Read.Listen. is known for, so it’s fitting that this article comes two months after the release of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, a film that manages to be divisive regardless of one’s political or artistic leanings. Aronofsky does not exactly have a reputation for catering to anyone but himself – both a high virtue in art and a high crime in entertainment. For the artistically-minded viewer, the question of the film’s quality comes down to its effectiveness on them. Some, like myself, were greatly affected by it, while others found it lacking in one way or another. For the politically-minded viewer, however, artistic quality rarely enters into the discussion; the film’s quality becomes largely a question of political message.
That conservative magazine National Review would publish a negative review of mother! should therefore come as no surprise. The magazine’s conservative readership has long viewed Hollywood as its adversary for the hearts and minds of the American people, and a film critical of organized religion in general and Christianity in particular could hardly have escaped National Review’s ire. Instead, what I did find surprising about the review (titled “Jennifer Lawrence’s Grotesque Spoof of the Nativity”) is writer Kyle Smith’s (@rkylesmith on Twitter) complete failure to comment critically on the film in any meaningful way whatsoever. Instead, Smith’s review of mother! is a great of example of someone refusing to intellectually engage with art because he disagrees with it.Note 1
Smith’s admission of this doesn’t come until the very end of his piece: “But I don’t see any seriousness of purpose, just a Biblically-infused version of torture porn.” Getting too far into what is or isn’t “torture porn” is outside the scope of this article, but Smith’s use of the term here and at the beginning of article shows how far Smith must reach to delegitimize mother! as something to be taken seriously: nothing depicted in the film comes anywhere close to “torture porn.” It’s so far from it, in fact, that I wonder if Smith even knows what torture porn is; he seems to believe that anything grotesque must qualify.
Smith’s baseless allegations of “torture porn” aside, his statement that Aronofsky lacks “seriousness of purpose” turns out to be a criticism that reflects upon himself. Thankfully, Smith reveals this lack of seriousness early on even if he doesn’t immediately admit it. After a hyperbolic introduction declaring mother! “the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios,” he complains about the styling of the title and refers to Jennifer Lawrence not as an Academy-Award winner but as “the filmmaker’s girlfriend.” Smith never elaborates on why this piece of information is important in how he views the film, so we’re left to infer that he thinks Aronofsky and Lawrence’s relationship means the film is purely a vanity project.
Smith’s main criticism of the film, that Aronofsky’s basic intention is “to outrage Christians, especially Catholics,” is undermined by his failure to seriously engage with it. He could have argued against Aronofsky’s thesis about the problems of organized religion, or Aronofsky’s literal depiction of the Eucharist, or even the film’s portrayal of God as seeking attention and praise above all else. Instead, he takes an overly-simplistic view of the film’s central metaphor. I’ve only seen the film once, and I immediately saw the various layers centered around Jennifer Lawrence’s character: she is Mother Nature, the Jewish people, the land of Israel/Palestine, the Virgin Mary, and the feminine all at once. In fact, this layering of metaphors is what I find most fascinating about mother!: Aronofsky finds a way to tell this story in a way that incorporates these different symbolic and historic ideas.
In criticizing the film, Smith could have made some argument that Aronofsky fails to accomplish this, but instead Smith tries to criticize Aronofsky as “versed in the Bible, though not particularly well-versed.” He then chooses to narrowly interpret “mother” as only the Virgin Mary: “was the Virgin Mary actually present at the murder of Abel? I don’t think she was.” That this is one of Smith’s main points against the film betrays his lack of seriousness and even, perhaps, his own lack of understanding of the Bible. Had Smith been paying attention, he would have noticed that Lawrence’s mother is not primarily the Virgin Mary, but instead Mother Nature. Javier Bardem’s “Him” even calls her “my goddess” several times. And as the Earth, “mother” was indeed present at the murder of Abel:
9 And the Lord said to Cain, Where is Abel your brother? And he said, I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?
10 And [the Lord] said, What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.
11 And now you are cursed by reason of the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s [shed] blood from your hand. (Genesis 4:9-11, Amplified Bible, 1987)
Aronofsky’s metaphorical depiction of Mary is actually more in keeping with the Bible than Smith is apparently capable of realizing. In Revelation 12, the Mother of Christ is depicted as being present at the fall of Satan (represented by the dragon):
1 And a great sign (wonder) – [warning of future events of ominous significance] appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and with a crownlike garland (tiara) of twelve stars on her head.
2 She was pregnant and she cried out in her birth pangs, in the anguish of her delivery.
3 Then another ominous sign (wonder) was seen in heaven: Behold, a huge, fiery-red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven kingly crowns (diadems) upon his heads.
4 His tail swept [across the sky] and dragged down a third of the stars and flung them to earth.Note 2 And the dragon stationed himself in front of the woman who was about to be delivered, so that he might devour her child as soon as she brought it forth.
5 And she brought forth a male Child, One Who is destined to shepherd (rule) all nations with an iron staff (scepter), and her Child was caught up to God and to His throne. (Revelation 12:1-5, Amplified Bible, 1987)
A common interpretation of this passage is that the woman represents Israel as the nation from which the Messiah came, but in a sense she is also the Virgin Mary, giving birth to Jesus. While I can’t fault anyone for not immediately thinking of this passage of Revelation upon viewing mother!, if Smith didn’t think of it he can hardly criticize anyone else’s biblical knowledge. I wonder if Smith would criticize the Apostle John for “not being well-versed” in the Bible.
What Smith fails to acknowledge about mother! – and what also contradicts his idea that Aronofsky is not being serious – is that the film is working on a typological level. Typology in this context is a way of reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, such that characters and events from an earlier period are seen as types of those to come. This means that earlier events serve almost as prophecies of future ones. For example, the story of Abraham’s almost sacrifice of his son Isaac is seen as a type, a prefiguration, of the death of Christ upon the cross. This prefiguration often goes further than one single event, or even a single character. Isaac is the one promised to the barren Abraham and Sarah, just as Jesus is seen as the promised Messiah, This reading makes Abraham and Sarah types of Joseph and Mary, where not only the similarities but also the differences are illustrative of God’s plan for humanity. The specifics of their childlessness and miraculous conception are different (infertility versus virginity), but the overarching theme – faithfulness and the promises of God – remains. Based on the various layers in mother!, Aronofsky is interpreting the Bible and history typologically – the characters represent different figures (Biblical, historical, or otherwise) throughout the film, and even sometimes at the same moment. Given the thoughtfulness I think is inherent in constructing such a narrative, Smith’s idea that Aronofsky is not serious is simply a failure of thoughtfulness on Smith’s part.
Smith’s core thesis is further based around a fundamental fallacy: that Smith can discern Aronofsky’s intentions. Of course, we attempt to discern the intentions of others on a regular basis, and I have even done so in this very article. I say that Smith cannot discern Aronofsky’s intentions, and therefore his entire thesis is erroneous, precisely because Smith acknowledges that he is not taking the film seriously. His one main point against Aronofsky (the Virgin Mary witnessing the death of Abel) is shallow in the extreme.
It could be argued that looking critically at Smith’s article is a useless exercise; maybe Smith had no intention of writing a critical review, but simply wanted to warn the readership of National Review Online not to see the film, to protect them from this “torture porn” only intended to offend them and ridicule their beliefs. After all, I have already written twice as many words here than Smith’s entire article. (Although in all fairness, I did actually quote from the Bible rather than just being glib.) However, Smith is credited as National Review’s “critic-at-large,” and yet he fails to actually critique the film or to give his readers any real idea for why they might find the movie offensive. Instead, he just plays off their preconceptions of “Hollywood” as their adversaries in the “Culture Wars,” ignoring the fact that Aronofsky is hardly representative of the Hollywood studios.
The most Smith does is allude to terrible things and the potential offense to Christians (especially Catholics) that might result; he never gives them anything like an intellectual reason to oppose this film. I suppose he could argue he was trying to avoid spoilers, but why avoid spoilers if you’re trying to convince people not to see a film?
Instead, Smith reveals his true purpose: to pander to a particular audience for page views. He applies no critical thinking to the film. Perhaps this sort of click-baity, shallow, and pandering drivel helps put money in his pocket, but it certainly contributes nothing to the critical discourse and only “protects” his readers from possibly feeling uncomfortable or challenged. Kyle Smith is bad at his job, and National Review should feel bad for publishing him.
1. I first encountered this article on Facebook, where it was shared by someone who had not seen mother! but took this article as somehow communicating something useful about it. I didn’t want to get too distracted by the separate problem of people sharing unsupported opinions using questionable sources, which is a topic for another article.
2. The image of a “third of the stars” being cast down to earth is where the idea that a third of the angels followed Satan into battle with Michael and were then cast down to earth comes from.