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It’s been almost seven years since Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan scooped up a handful of Oscar nominations and reminded us all, if for a moment, that the horror genre is a genre worth respecting. Now, after taking a turn for the Biblical in 2014’s Noah, he’s back with another foray into horror, mother!, the newest psychological brain-melter in a year brimming with them.
The year began with Jordan Peele’s Get Out and carried on with Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper; with mother! opening in theaters this week and Joachim Trier’s Thelma arriving in November, the year in movies is uniquely positioned to capture the minds of a global audience that has buckled gradually under the mental strain of living in an increasingly unrecognizable world. Any day that goes by without mention of potential nuclear firestorms or hate rallies or allegations of celebrity sexual misconduct or catastrophic natural disasters or mass shootings is a good one. (If nothing else, it’s a better day than the day before it. Probably.)
The emotional traumas that make up the core of these films, of course, don’t exist on that kind of scale: They aim inward, each examining the anxieties and fears weighing on their protagonists in context with their narratives. Get Out grapples with the terror of latent liberal American racism; Personal Shopper processes a heartbreaking loss and frames it as a literal journey of fulfillment; Thelma explores its lead’s emotional growth, couched in her sexual awakening; mother! makes a phantasmagorical meal out of gender relations as a couple’s idyllic existence is unceremoniously disrupted by married strangers who — for unknown reasons — keep on barging into the lovers’ home and messing up their kitchen.
Taken purely on its surface, the film is about the horror of hosting ungrateful houseguests. Going beneath that surface, it’s about gruesome male narcissism. Ignoring its text and subtext entirely though, mother! is something more ambitious: A herald of prestige horror at a moment when we might actually need it. It’s September, the calm before the dizzying storm of awards season self-aggrandizement, when we stop thinking of movies as works of art and start thinking of them as show horses; we sacrifice the substantive power of movies in this stretch of the year, focusing instead on making predictions, playing the odds and analyzing marketing campaigns. mother!’s theatrical release falls just on the cusp of celebratory madness, three months earlier than Black Swan’s back in 2010. But both movies screened at the Venice International Film Festival, often treated as the start of the Oscar race by pundits; both movies star esteemed, in demand lead actresses, the latter Natalie Portman, the former Jennifer Lawrence.
If mother! doesn’t benefit from Black Swan’s shrewd timing, its pedigree is enough to secure at least some hope for its chances during our annual whirlwind of nominations and voting rites, and that’s a hope worth clinging to: There’s no better time for horror to put in an appearance on the awards circuit than right now, when we desperately need to make sense of the year’s turmoil, or failing that, to have our bewilderment validated by movies centered on equally as bewildered protagonists. It’s a given that horror cinema tends to reflect the defining cultural fears of the era it’s produced in: Post-9/11, for instance, saw a spike in movies indulging in unrelenting nihilism married with graphic torture, a’la the Saw and Hostel films, plus subsidiary efforts like Turistas and Captivity. That’s one of horror’s common, evolving dynamics.
Less common is a similar plasticity within awards season, in which movies nominated for glory either mirror the social concerns du jour or fulfill an aching communal need among moviegoers and the Academy’s voting body alike. (Arguably, the 89th Academy Awards ceremony did both by honoring Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, though the Best Picture mix-up makes that pill tough to swallow.) Awards soirees reward popularity and studio resources. They’re not designed to reflect anything. But with Aronofsky’s name in the ring, maybe they will. They certainly should.
Grant that among Aronofsky’s psych-horror peers, he’s the only one who’s gotten to enjoy that AMPAS spotlight; Trier’s works have been submitted as Norwegian candidates for Best Foreign Language Film, but never been nominated, and there’s strong likelihood that Assayas would find the very notion of an Oscar nod for his movies laughable. (Peele is the newcomer director among the group, but that hasn’t dissuaded optimistic chatter of Get Out’s chances of securing Academy attention.)
Grant also that Aronofsky is one of the only filmmakers of the last few decades to get his name on voting ballots with a horror film, putting him in the company of Jonathan Demme, M. Night Shyamalan, and Guillermo del Toro (who might be looking at Oscar attention himself ten years after Pan’s Labyrinth scored the Best Foreign Language Film statue, thanks to his new film, Golden Lion winner The Shape of Water).
Good horror stands on its own and doesn’t demand legitimization by AMPAS coronation. But that level of recognition feels necessary as we start closing in on 2017’s finish line. Psychological horror is the horror of now, the horror of feeling as though you’re the only sane person in a room full of ideologues and zealots, of suffering fundamentalist oppression even though you live half a country away from its source, of searching fruitlessly for answers to existential questions for which there are none. We’re living in a period where reason no longer matters. The movies, and the institutions that commemorate them, would do well to acknowledge that.
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