Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for 5 years…. but how did they survive all alone in the wilderness? And were they really alone?
January & February are the months during which Hollywood dumps the films that have either been laying around for a few years or newer films that they just know suck the big one and want to release to an unsuspecting public in order to make a quick buck. So far this month I’ve been subjected to the obtuse “John Dies At The End” and the execrable “A Haunted House”. Now from producer Guillermo del Toro comes “Mama”, a film that’s been getting a lot of press over the last few weeks but does it live up to all of the hype?
As the film begins we hear a reporter talking bout some type of fiscal nightmare that has Wall Street reeling and is being called the worst financial crash of all time. Jeffrey (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) is in his home listening to the report and sweating profusely, obviously upset about the news, or maybe he’s upset that the report states that he’s just shot and killed his business associates and is being sought by the police. His 3 yr. old daughter, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her 1 yr. old sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are dressed and asking for their mom. Sadly, Jeffrey has pretty much flipped his wig and shoots mom as well. He then gathers the girls up and drives away in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. Extremely distraught (& still armed) he drives recklessly on icy, snow covered roads and despite hearing Victoria warn him that he’s driving too fast he continues until running of of the road into a snow covered embankment. Miraculously the three of them survive with minimal damage (Victoria’s glasses get busted up) and they begin to trudge through the frosty foilage looking for some sort of shelter from the ever worsening storm.
They come upon a small abandoned cottage where Jeffrey manages to start a fire to keep the kids warm. As Victoria wanders about she calls out claiming that someone is outside & their feet aren’t on the ground! Jeffrey ignores her claims and readies his pistol to shoot her in the back of the head when his neck is suddenly broken by something but what? We then see the girls sitting in front of the dwindling fire, seemingly contemplating their fate when someone rolls a cherry across the floor to them. Then that same something comes up behind them. Cut to 5 years later and the girls uncle Lucas (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau again) has been searching fruitlessly for them, going so far as to hire professional trackers to help. And they do eventually come across the dilapidated cottage. And once inside they find a mountain of dried cherry pits and the two (Now feral) children.
The girls are returned to the civilized world and although Lucas wants them his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) wants no part of them at all. He’s a struggling artist & she’s a bassist in a rock band, neither one of them have any money or the space to take in two children. The girls live in a hospital and are supervised by Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). Kash makes a deal with Lucas to take the girls and live in a beautiful home that is owned by the hospital & used for case studies just like this one. The catch is that Dr. Kash has unlimited access to the girls but Lucas leaps at the opportunity to take care of the girls and convinces Annabel to give up her dreams of being a rock star to act as a surrogate mother of sorts for a short time. But whatever was taking care of the girls has followed them back to civilization and it wants them back…
Written & directed by Andres Muschietti, “Mama” initially has a lot going for it. It immediately sets a ominous tone and works very hard to stay true to it. It’s opening scenes took hold of the audience I saw it with and wouldn’t let go. It’s a beautifully shot movie as well, director of photography Antonio Riestra creates beautifully disturbing vistas with his camera and there are a few shots that are legitimate works of cinematic art. The film is going to benefit from Chastain’s recent Oscar nomination (For “ZERO DARK THIRTY”) and Waldau is convincingly depressed as Jeffrey and equally earnest as Lucas. But it’s the performances of the youngest members of the cast, Charpentier & Nelisse, that really shine above all others. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen more convincing performances from two children as young as they are. Nelisse is especially convincing as Lilly, who never really recovers from her feral state and spends most of the movie barefoot & crawling on all fours. As good as all the other performances are the film wouldn’t be effective if the performances of the children didn’t convince the audience.
But all is not well in “Mama” land. As effective as the first two thirds of the film are, the last third stretches credulity to it’s breaking point. The script falls prey to the standard horror tropes that we’ve seen time & time again and I was a little bothered by it all. I understand that if everyone did what was rational in a horror movie then it would have a running time of 15 minutes tops but “Mama” makes some truly egregious leaps of faith, disregarding all sensibility. It also takes a chance and features the titular creature way too much. In the beginning we get slight glimpses of Mama which are both scary & unnerving but as the film proceeds Muschietti gets a little “Mama-Happy” and as cool as she looks after a while the thrill is gone. Especially if we see her in one way shape or form every few minutes or so. Additionally the film just screams DEL TORO! As loathe as he may be to admit it, “Mama” really looks and feels a lot like “Pan’s Labyrinth” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it calls into question who was really in charge here.
A lot of the scares in the film come from the wonderful way that the title creature moves around. When she isn’t floating just above everyone’s eyeline she’s contorting her body in what looked to me to be a combination of Linda Blair’s infamous “Spider Walk” scene from “THE EXORCIST” & Ashley Bell’s painful looking back bends from “The LAST EXORCISM”…times three! There are some truly potent scares to be found here and the audience was suitably edgy throughout the film’s running time. Plenty of jumping & screaming to be found here for sure but the lapses in judgement the script makes will make the more diligent viewers shake their heads in wonderment. There is an entirely transparent subplot involving Lucas’ sister who wants custody of the children that screams “RED SHIRT” as soon as it’s introduced. There’s another plot thread involving some really big moths that doesn’t add up to much until the end and even then it doesn’t make much sense.
In the end “Mama” is about the power of motherhood. One character wants nothing to do with it but learns to love it, the other loves it so much that she yearns for it beyond death. I was reminded of (Believe it or not) “Aliens” and Ripley’s maternal instincts vs. the alien queen’s, both of them were only defending their children just like in this film. Like I said earlier, “Mama” has a lot going for it and I really did like it a lot for what it did right. But I wanted to love it and I just didn’t. It’s a good movie, actually it’s the best film of the year but that ain’t saying much since the year is only a few weeks old. It had the potential to be a champ but manages only contender status in the end.
“Mama” – 3 out of 5 shrouds.
Mama is now available on Bluray per Universal Studios