MAMA (Andrés Muschietti 2013)
Andrés Muschietti: MAMA (2013)
JESSICA CHASTAIN IN MAMA
A handsome man called Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) commits murder at the workplace, kills his ex-wife, kidnaps and runs away with their two little girls, Victoria (Morgan McGarry, Megan Charpentier), and little Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse). After a car crash they take refuge in a long-abandoned mid-century modern cabin -- a Cabin in the Woods, but a less ironic and highly-charged model than the one in last year's movie of that name. Just as he's apparently about to kill the girls Lucas mysteriously disappears. The sisters, also mysteriously, survive in the cabin -- and are found and retrieved five years later in a semi-feral state to be eventually cared for by their uncle, Jeffrey's twin brother Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend. Something weird has happened to the little girls. So begins Mama.
Argentinian newcomer Andréas Muschietti, who directed this movie shot in Spain and Canada, has done so with the imprimatur of current horror-fantasy doyen Guillermo del Toro (of Pan's Labyrinth; and he also sponsored Juan Antonio Bayona’s first film The Orphanage). Mexican auteur Del Toro is executive producer and got Mama made on the strength of a short Muschietti submitted containing the kernel of the story idea. Del Toro's sponosorship means that if you like the bloody, state-of-the-art barf-bag Saw kind of film beloved by the more hardcore scary movie fans of today, this isn't that, so stay home. Moreover Mama, whose story may owe a lot to either last year's The Woman in Black or whatever is their common ancester, isn't notable for the originality of its narrative. It may scare you a little, and it ends with a very involving literal cliffhanger, but it never builds up its level of fear, terror, and suspense to a fever pitch. In fact shock-scare fans may find it fluffy and flat in the middle, like some Fifties Tasty Snack with an eternal shelf life but limited nutritional value.
Nonetheless, in a genre known for trashiness, this is a pretty classy movie, with several things going for it that the Saw generation is missing. Its central non-ghost, non-possessed adult characters are three-dimensional and you can care about them. And its look and its effects are tasteful and elegant. Guillermo del Toro would not attach himself to anything less. Furthermore playing Lucas' girlfriend Anabel it's got Jessica Chastain, an actress in so many movies lately this time she had to disguise herself, like an over-prolific writer who uses a pseudonym, by covering up her flaming red hair with a shiny black wig and going goth. She's also taking a break from all those roles lately where she's been brimming over with innocence, nobility and dedication, which might grow tiresome, for her as well as for us. Anabel plays in a punk girl band, has an armload of tattoos, and her main goals in life are to hang loose and not get pregnant.
This may argue the versatility of Ms. Chastain. But without the flaming tresses to set off that pale white skin she takes a hit; becomes rather ordinary. And if she is real and specific, that doesn't mean interesting. Her Anabel may be considered another feather in the cap of an ambitious actress. Some say it counts as an Oscar misstep like the release of Norbit when Eddie Murphy was being considered for an Academy Award for Dreamgirls. That's not fair. This is tony genre work. But her performance here together with her one as the dogged CIA investigator in Zero Dark Thirty indicate we should be careful about overestimating her abilities. Her work seems more energetic than brilliant.
Anabel's boyfriend is an artist. It's not altogether clear how they support themselves. I never said this movie was rich in backstory details, only that it makes you care about its characters.
It would be nice to analyze the content of Mama in detail. Poor, scorned step-sister genre of the cinematic world though horror movies are, they provide a rich field of explorable sources and influences that go back to folklore and myth and so to our most primitive complexes and fears. But here more than anywhere in filmland the element of surprise is crucial, so I can only throw out hints or what happens.
But we have Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) as our agent. He is a child psychologist in whose care Victoria and Lilly are put at first, to examine them and coax them back to normal life. When found by searchers working for Lucas, they mumbled and screeched and hopped around on top on things on spindly arms and legs, like giant spiders. It seemed they had to be captured rather than rescued. When the time comes Anabel and Lucas must battle with an inexplicably menacing aunt (Jane Moffat) for custody, but Dr. Dreyfuss helps by making available to the couple whole house where psychological tests are conducted, thus providing Anabel and Lucas with a more spacious, unpunk location for the nightmarish demonic-child babysitting experience that is to follow. The doctor has diagnosed Victoria with dissociative personality disorder and thinks she's imagined/embodied a fantasy mother surrogate she calls "mama." Of course we know it's something more complicated and there's an unquiet ghost that follows the girls to their new abode. How the heck do Lucas and Anabel or Dr. Dreyfus think the girls survived five years in that cabin? Even now Lily, whose "language skills" aren't well developed, seems to live on a secret diet of black moths.
For fans of the subtler kind of fantasy-horror, the pleasure of Mama is the way it holds back, hiding its unappeased, angry spirit behind the facade of two cute little girls (once they're fattened up again) and an ordinary-looking house with bright lights and no creaking doors, cobwebs, or attic. For the hardcore scare-fest genre addict, that will be what makes this whole movie a total washout. I'm straddling the fence on this. But there are some tugs of war for control of the girls, especially in the final frames, that had me on the edge of my seat. And I can't forget a "breakfast" Victoria prepared on her own in the kitchen, unseen, an orphan shot never referred back to. It's a big pan of swirly greenish tendrils.
US release of Mama (runtime 100 min.) is 18 Jan. 2013; UK, 22 Feb.; France, 15 May.
Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-19-2013 at 06:35 PM.