clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mother! will infuriate many viewers. In 2014, Darren Aronofsky's film Noah did the same.

The two movies form a fascinating diptych, and they’re concerned with the same thing.

Russell Crowe in Noah
Russell Crowe in Noah
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for September 17 through 23 is Noah (2014), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! opens in theaters this weekend. Despite the film’s high scores at Rotten Tomatoes (71) and Metacritic (75), some critics are still predicting it will be “2017’s most hated movie”. And by its opening night, the movie had garnered the rare F Cinemascore, a measure of audience opinion.

That kind of reaction is not unusual for a film by Aronofsky, a filmmaker who rarely seems interested in coddling his audiences. From Requiem for a Dream and Pi to The Wrestler and The Fountain, he prefers to tackle big, daring concepts with gutsy execution that’s often off-putting or stomach-churning.

That approach extends all the way through his last project before Mother!, 2014’s Noah, a film that should color every reading of Aronofsky’s latest. Mother! is a kind of prequel-and-sequel to Noah, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the latter while I watched the former.

Some personal history is in order here. When Noah released in theaters, I was still the chief film critic at Christianity Today. Any film critic is used to angry reader feedback, but being the chief film critic at the flagship evangelical magazine in America when a movie like Noah is coming out is on another level altogether.

Aronofsky says he isn’t religious, that he’s an atheist, though you might be excused for raising an eyebrow given how often his movies plunge fearlessly into religious subjects (along with Mother! and Noah, he also made the 2006 reincarnation fantasia The Fountain). I kept Aronofsky’s professed nonbelief — and my fondness for Black Swan and The Fountain — in mind when I went to see Noah.

Though it certainly takes liberties from the biblical text, in which the whole story of the flood runs only about 40 verses, it’s still respectful while also imaginative. Those liberties didn’t undercut the story. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel thought of the tale of Noah as predominately Jewish (as, indeed, it is). They decided it was a cross between myth, fantasy, and horror; it is a story, after all, in which a flood is sent by a God who finds the earth’s population too wicked for survival. Almost every person on earth dies. And Noah, being a person, is deeply affected by witnessing that sort of devastation.

A scene of devastation from Noah
A scene of devastation from Noah.

Bafflingly, the studio chose to market Noah partly as a “faith-based” film, which was a terrible call. I know from deep experience that in most cases, the “faith” market has little to no tolerance for deviation from biblical text, or for any film that doesn’t feel safe and tidy. This was a movie by the director of Requiem for a Dream. It wasn’t going to be safe.

But as I watched, I thought maybe it would turn out okay. The big story beats rang true, the liberties with the text — as Aronofsky and Handel explained in interviews and post-screening discussions — were drawn from Jewish tradition, and there was a whole sequence that depicted the creation as happening in a manner that in some ways synced up with a more literalist “young earth” view of creation held by many evangelicals. And besides, the “rock people” — another element grounded in ancient tradition, by the way — resembled, to my eye, the Ents from the Lord of the Rings movies. Evangelicals love Tolkien! I thought.

So in my Christianity Today review, I encouraged readers to see the movie for themselves and enjoy the conversations it would provoke. It was a solid and respectful adaptation made by filmmakers who were interested in telling the story from a new perspective, I said — and besides, how can you have a conversation about a movie you haven’t seen?

Well, if the studio miscalculated, so did I — but the emails and the comments and the tweets clued me in pretty fast. We eventually turned off comments at the website, and they no longer live on the internet, but the review eventually netted a few hundred comments posted to the web, most long and outraged, and many more emails and social media responses that went on for years. (I gave The Wolf of Wall Street a very positive review and received only a quarter of the outrage that I did for Noah.)

Few of the web commenters had seen the movie, but for a variety of reasons — especially a misleading claim from Glenn Beck that the movie didn’t reference God at all, just “the Creator” — people felt free to declare their convictions about me and my opinions.

And it wasn’t just people commenting on my article who hated it. People who had expected Noah to promote Christianity or stick to a Christian interpretation of the Bible generally found it lacking. A Breitbart writer called it “brilliantly sinister anti-Christian filmmaking,” prominent Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler wrote that it was “drowning in distortion,” and Charisma News outlined seven “mistakes” in the film.

“Errors” weren’t my concern as a critic, but I was still drowning in a storm of angry commenters for my thoughts on Noah. One comment in particular I’ve found to be unforgettable, because of how much it made me chuckle. The commenter had clearly read to the end of the article, where my bio included the fact that I also teach college — at a Christian college, mind you. “This is why you should never trust academics,” the commenter wrote. “Midrash? More like mid-trash!

Russell Crowe in Noah
Russell Crowe in Noah.

This bit of clever wordplay referenced my mentioning of midrash and its role in the movie in the review. I’m not a scholar of rabbinic teaching by a long shot, but I knew about the tradition within Judaism of commenting upon the Scriptures, pulling ethical, religious, and philosophical interpretations from the text that often go way beyond what’s actually there. They extrapolate and expound and theorize and expand, often in order to move toward a point that the interpreter would like to make. The movie Noah, as I saw it, was basically Aronofsky and Handel’s midrash on the story of Noah. They saw a connection in the Bible’s repeated proclamation that the earth was “filled with violence” to the world we live in today, and saw the violence as being against both humanity and the earth itself. That furnished the motivation for the flood, and also justified how the film ends, which is somewhat hopeful and somewhat unhappy — just as the story of Noah does in the Bible.

I found myself thinking about the commenter, midrash, and Noah while watching Mother!, partly because this new film builds on another idea that Aronofsky and Handel mentioned during the press tour for Noah. Like Noah, Mother! takes a simple biblical tale (in this case, drawing on both Genesis and the birth of Christ in the Gospels) and pulls much more from it than just what’s on the page.

And like Noah, Mother! is best taken as a layered allegory. In this case, it’s about creation both on a divine and a more intimate human scale, and it once again links the violence that humans do to one another in intimate family situations with how they violate and destroy the planet on which they live, which needs care and tending rather than trampling and exploitation.

Noah wasn’t particularly beloved by audiences — it received a soft “C” Cinemascore — and I’m not expecting Mother! will be, either. But it’s instructive to put the two side by side, because they act as a pair. They illuminate each other. And they reveal a filmmaker who’s not afraid to scandalize and baffle his audience — whether they’re mainstream horror fans or frustrated evangelical commenters — in his attempts to dig into our frightening world.

Watch the trailer for Noah:

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.