There’s a brief, shining moment when Mama – the new budget-conscious horror film opening today starring Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) and executive produced by genre heavyweight Guillermo del Toro – promises that it might be a little something different. OK. Maybe it doesn’t promise, but there’s definitely a hopeful glimpse that everything leading up to that moment – vague and fleeting – wasn’t quite the predictable nonsense it seemed to be. What’s ultimately interesting about Mama is that it does do something different, but not in a particularly successful way, and not up to the standards of that single instant.
First, a little background (to its detriment is how much backstory Mama asks its audience to invest in): The presumably wealthy Jeffrey (Coster-Waldau) kills his business partners and estranged wife, escaping into the obviously Pacific Northwestern/Canadian wilderness with his two daughters, barely out of diapers. Missing for years, Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) spends years – and all of his money – to find his now-feral nieces. In a period of extended recovery and sinister-ish therapy, the girls reveal they survived thanks to the help of someone, or something (naturally), called “Mama.”
Lucas’ girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) – introduced by celebrating her pregnancy test reading negative – isn’t interested in children, and makes light of Lucas’ crusade. Coming from a bizarre, middle-aged Hollywood version of “what the kids are into these days,” which looks disturbingly like the 1990s, Annabel is “immature” in the most conventional sense of the word. It’s never really established what brings these two crazy kids together – there’s absolutely no chemistry between the two leads – and when faced with bringing home little Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), Annabel balks, but only because she’s supposed to.
Like most genre hokum, Mama paints in broad strokes. Its premise is structured around the well-worn (and uncomfortable) trope of putting cute kids in danger. The prologue quickly goes from “manipulative” to “belligerent,” and even the introduction of its titular monster establishes the film’s uneven tone; the creature is immediately lent sympathy in place of fear. Slowly unraveled by an opportunistic, yet conveniently dense, psychiatrist (Daniel Kash), “Mama” has a complicated backstory, complete with grim MacGuffin, which takes too many characters too long to finally put together.
Nominated by the Academy this year for her role in Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain acquits herself well (considering the material), and provides the best moments of levity. Wearing a bad black wig, covered in drawn-on tattoos and splashed with too much black eye makeup, Chastain must’ve known what she was in for. Admittedly, her character could’ve been more interesting, more organically disengaged from the notion of being a parent who found her calling as a mother (as stereotypical as that might be). Annabel – like the film itself – makes the best attempt she can to step up, but isn’t quite up to the task.
Violently rendered comatose by an angry “Mama,” Lucas spends most of the second act having nonsensical dreams (Dreams!) about his brother warning him about “Mama.” While Annabel does her best to cope with single motherhood, she also begins having strange dreams that lead her to believe – finally – that something strange is going on. Eventually, pacing and timing are thrown out in favor of what could have been a truly chilling climax, but isn’t. Unfortunately, getting there requires Lucas and Annabel to cease using any kind of common sense, and some of the storytelling choices – especially for the final minutes – could be considered daring, even if they’re likely to damage the film’s chances at the box office. And in that brief moment, before things go awry, del Toro’s hand, or more likely his influence in the last few decades as a filmmaker, are gleefully apparent.
To its credit, Mama begins with “Once upon a time …” scrawled across the screen, and embraces its ghostly trappings. There are a few clever moments when viewers are tricked into believing the girls are playing together only to discover the unseen playmate is actually this apparently loving creature, but the gag – like many gags, especially the “It was a dream!” trick – is overused and quickly wears out its welcome. Probably rescued from the shelf thanks to Jessica Chastain’s rising star and the judicious use of editing, maybe screenwriters Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti (who also directs) and Barbara Muschietti were hoping for something a little more pretentious – a deconstruction of motherhood, perhaps – but fell victim to the practicality of show business. As a result, Mama has no sense of humor, forthrightly wants to be taken seriously, but isn’t gracious enough to return the favor. LEAVE IT!
Mama, a Toma 78 and De Milo Productions picture distributed by Universal Pictures, is 100 minutes long and rated PG-13.