Re:View – ‘Mama’
NO PLOT SPOILERS
Guillermo del Toro’s name features large here, and you can sense his hand upon Andrés Muschietti’s debut feature, not always to the best effect. Which is a great pity, because there’s a terrific idea at the core of this supernatural thriller. When a financial manager goes postal in the economic crash and wipes out his colleagues and family, he strands his two little girls in dense woodland, where they are forced to grow up like Les Enfants Sauvages.
Five years later, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain and hot uncle Nikolaj Coster-Waldau find the children, Victoria and Lily, but they are eerily feral and require rehabilitation. Chastain is a rock-chick first seen thanking God she’s not pregnant, so the idea of instant surrogate motherhood fits her poorly when the state awards them custody. Victoria is the more civilised of the pair, but both little girls believe they owe their survival in the woods to a mother-figure who is not only always with them, but will fight to keep them.
In the early parts there’s a fantastic Hitchcockian sense of suspense and dread as Jessica, left alone to look after the girls, finds she’s sharing them with an invisible entity known only as ‘Mama’. In one great scene, we see a ‘Marnie’-type shot with Jessica in a hallway on one side and the youngest girl having a blanket tug-of-war through a partially open door. Then Jessica opens the hall door to reveal the other child, so who the hell is Lily playing with?
Two other story arcs arrive – a prying relative who wants custody of the children and a psychiatrist seeking to write a book about them, so the plotting becomes very busy. At the same time the central arc feels oversimplified as we discover who ‘Mama’ is. Still, the direction is superb, we care about the characters – and then comes a horrible, fatal misstep – the film reveals the ghost in its entirety, again and again, and the final third descends into ludicrous cliff-edge melodrama (complete with an actual cliff edge).
What seems to have happened here is that Muschietti has bowed to del Toro’s oft-stated love of monsters, and has plastered the creature all over the screen – but he’s misunderstood what we, the audience, want. We care less about the CGI monster than the characters, because he’s made us care. We want to know what will happen to the psychiatrist, and Chastain, and even the prying relative. Instead we get stuck in a ludicrous fantasy smackdown that undermines all the good work that’s gone before and leaves the film standing far behind the benchmark ‘The Orphanage’.
If this had been made in the style of the original ‘Cat People’, say, with Mama suggested by shadows instead of elaborate CG effects, and had stuck with the moral consequences to the actors, this would be a supremely memorable ghost story. Instead, like ‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’, you find yourself distantly studying the quality of the effects instead of caring about flesh and blood. Kudos, though, for the astonishing performances of the little girls, and for the film’s superb first half.
Muschietti will be a director to watch if he can buck the studio’s demand for showing spectacular effects instead of opting for subtlety and ambiguity, but it will mean leaving Hollywood and heading to Spain.