There will be criticism, but it is admittedly original, sensitive, thoughtful and profoundly scary. It makes you remember your ultimate fear of ghosts as a child, “What if they are real?”
Rating: Can be seen anywhere, but should be seen with a group in a theater. Some of you will need to laugh to release tension, while others simply need to be a part of a larger group when you scream.
Mama, directed and co-written by Andres Muschietti, is a classic Gothic horror film that will leave you squirming in your seat from beginning to end. It will tug at your heart as it twists you intellectually, and despite its occasional lapses I can’t think of higher praise.
Co-written by Director Muschietti, Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, it is a simple story that takes you into a nightmarish realm. A psychologically damaged young father, played in a combined role by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau who also appears later as his brother, is crashing down a snow-covered road in his car, all but lost in agony. In the backseat are his two young girls, Victoria and Lilly, ages 3 and 1, and he has just killed their mother in a tragic encounter in their business office.
Spiraling off the road, he carries the little girls to an abandoned, weathered cabin deep in the woods. Crying, he has his 3-year old turn around as he places a handgun to her head. As you all but turn away, he is suddenly dragged forcibly away by a dark, largely unseen force that saves the girls.
Four years into the future, his brother, Jeffrey, again played by the talented Mr. Coster-Waldau, is still committed to searching for the remains of his extended family. His young, acid-tongued wife is played by an unrecognizable Jessica Chastain. Here she has short dark hair, a large tattoo on her arm and plays lead guitar in a rock band. She also has no particular love lost for children, and tolerates her husband’s attempts to provide him some peace of mind.
What happens from then on I don’t dare describe in detail, but suffice it to say that the two young girls are found in the cabin by searchers, both existing in an almost animal-like state. Tiny Lilly literally walks on all fours, and both keep referring to their mama. And let me simply say that this is one mama that is unlikely to be invited to anyone’s home for Mother’s Day.
Following psychiatric care, the girls are allowed to live with Mr. Coster-Waldau and Ms. Chastain over the objections of the deceased father’s sister. This brings its own intrigue, but everything pales when it becomes gradually clear that the girls have not arrived alone.
If you saw Producer Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar winning Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), you already know that he is an artistic genius at taking the viewer to life’s dark side. The young girls here are as beautiful as they are bizarre, and Ms. Chastain continually wrestles for their affection as it becomes apparent that she is competing with someone, or something, else.
What makes del Toro’s movies so blasted spectacular is his genius for inviting the audience to waltz into an environment that is both appealing and foreboding. You continually wonder if everyone on screen is schizophrenic or could there really be some type of caring, horrific maternal creature looming over these children.
Don’t reject seeing this film because you dislike “horror films”, as that would be an unfortunate mistake. While I hate it, horror films have mutated under the unfortunate leadership of directors like Eli Roth, who brought us caustic, slice and dice films like the Hostel series (2005-2011). Even if you tolerate them, movies like Saw (2004) are little more than torture fest orgies.
On the other hand, Mama is as intriguing as other del Toro films. As examples, think of the above-mentioned Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage (2007), Splice (2009) and the Hellboy saga (2004, 2008). While good people died, these films bring ghosts to life, much like Daniel Radcliffe’s overlooked performance in last year’s The Woman in Black.
Finally, Jessica Chastain remains one of the most accomplished actresses working today. Her roles have ranged from her loveable ditsy character in The Help (2011) to last year’s stirring Lawless opposite Thomas Hardy, not to mention the disturbing but engaging Zero Dark Thirty. Who, other than Jennifer Lawrence, is remotely close to dancing in her league?
While the ending is yours to see and contemplate, I can only describe your likely emotional state as resembling an anti-James Bond martini. In other words, you will inevitably be left both shaken and profoundly stirred. It is both catastrophic and uplifting, and you won’t soon forget the experience.