Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Andres Muschietti
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet
Running time: 100 minutes
There's a sequence near the middle of Mama that exemplifies the visual skills and daringness of first-time feature helmer Andres Muschietti. It's a flashback, and, without giving away any of the participating characters' identities, it involves a first-person POV, nuns getting stabbed in the chest, and a chase through woods that's reminiscent of classic monster flicks like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. Most interestingly, though, it's filtered with a glossy, paintbrush-quality color palette, lending the brief but hard-hitting stretch of explanatory back-story an almost graphic novel-like quality.
When that sequence hits, it's a real shot to the senses, though the reason why isn't altogether celebratory. Up until that point, Mama—produced by genre master Guillermo del Toro and based on Muschietti's own 2008 short film—is mostly a seen-it-before compendium of predictable jump scares, a promising but hindered concept, proficient yet often stifled acting, and sporadic effectiveness. But when Mamadoes impress, it serves as a pleasurable introduction to a novice director with a promising voice and some nifty concepts.
Mama opens with a separate flashback that's almost as memorable as the nun one: A frazzled, shell-shocked father (Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kidnaps his two pint-sized daughters, after killing two co-workers and his wife, and brings them to an isolated cabin in the woods, where his attempt to blow one child's brains out (notice that PG-13 rating above—seriously, MPAA?) gets thwarted by what appears to be a ghostly banshee. Fast forward five years, when the crazed man's artist brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau), spends his days paying folks to track down his missing nieces, much to the chagrin of his punk-rock-guitarist girlfriend, Annabel (sexy Jessica Chastain, who's currently gathering awards nominations for Zero Dark Thirty). Lucas' efforts finally pay off—taken out of the cabin and in feral, aggressive states, little Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) move in with their uncle and his lover. But so does the enigmatic, seemingly malevolent banshee, which Lilly addresses as "Mama."
Once those narrative cards are all in place, Mama dives right into its succession of standardized fright set-ups and surface-level themes of motherhood. In regards to the former, Muschietti proves more than able to balance lazier moments with the occasional clever bit, like one where Lilly plays tug-of-war with an unseen playmate (the scene's payoff is nicely executed). The matriarchal ideas, however, aren't given enough room to grow. Annabel, forced to be the kids' primary caregiver, starts off playing mommy quite indifferently, especially toward Lilly, who's practically mute, sleeps under a bed, and prefers eating insects over pancakes. As Annabel slowly but surely warms up to the girls, Mama's supernatural hissy fits increase in strength, and the film's subsequent shift into its agreeably bizarre and amplified third act comes as a relief. Chastain does the best with what she's given, but, as it stands, Annabel's change from her whatever attitude to a Mother of the Year demeanor feels arbitrary. It's too easily reached and skimpily built-up.
About that aforementioned third act: That's where Muschietti really goes to work. Even if Mama as a whole isn't a horror masterwork, it's still deserving of praise for taking the proverbial gloves off and achieving a few sufficient jolts near the end, as Mama's inhuman capabilities physically manifest themselves in tightly staged ways. Looks-wise, "Mama" herself is a marginally creepy. The ghoul's elongated features (think the illustrations from Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and spidery movements intimidate in small doses, though Muschietti's insistence of showing her in several long shots gradually diminishes the impact.
Muschietti and his co-writers Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross earn bonus points for steering clear of a bows-and-ribbons happy ending, opting for a resolution that delicately walks the line between depressing and triumphant. Mama's brightest stripe, however, comes from its sheer originality. In a Hollywood marketplace that's endlessly ripe with remakes, sequels, and copycats, Muschietti's film presents an intriguing, reasonably ambitious mythology that borrows elements from previous stories but melds them together in a convincing, fresh manner.
For that, Mama earns the goodwill necessary to overcome its many narrative missteps and uneven pacing. Assuming Muschietti's follow-ups remedy this film's ailments, viewers could be saying hello to a new genre filmmaker with staying power.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)