Friday, January 25, 2013

Dear Mama

If there's anybody in Hollywood whose career has taken a sharp upturn recently, it's Jessica Chastain. The actress has starred (not merely appeared in) eleven films in the past two years, and for each one the response to her performance in particular has been unanimously positive. She was nominated for her first Oscar in 2011 (for The Help) and will be the likely WINNER this year for her role in the excellent Zero Dark Thirty. But it's not by acting talent alone that she has managed to attract so many followers and supporters, but her willingness to transcend genres and adapt herself fully into any character. No matter what movie Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie find themselves in, you never quite get over the fact that they are themselves playing parts. Chastain's talents are much closer to those of Meryl Streep or even Daniel Day Lewis; she so completely folds herself into a role that you lose her in the transformation and are left only with the person she has become. Her first film of 2013 is the horror flick Mama, based on a Spanish-language short of the same name by Argentinian director Andres Muschietti, who also helmed the full-length edition. Apparently the short for Mama was so scary that it convinced filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to produce a big screen version for the rest of us.

Be honest, you didn't realize it was her at first.
Five years ago, amid the chaos of the financial crisis, one man breaks down, murders two of his business partners and his estranged wife, and kidnaps his two daughters, then disappears. In the time since then, his brother Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has been searching, hiring teams to canvass the area in which they disappeared. Just as the money funding the mission is running out, one team makes a discovery: young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), Luke's nieces, have been found, feral but alive in a remote cabin in the woods. Though their father is nowhere to be found, Victoria and Lilly are brought back home for psychiatric treatment and a loving home with Luke and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rock-and-roll musician who doesn't think she's ready to take on a motherhood role. But something else has followed the girls to their new abode: something that spent the last five years caring for Victoria and Lilly, and isn't nearly ready to give up that role to a pair of young upstarts. The girls refer to her by one haunting word: "Mama."

There's something WRONG with that girl...
When it comes to a man like del Toro, you know Mama is going to be at least one thing: CREEPY. I don't know how much of the dark imagery in this film can be attributed to Muschietti (it's his first feature film and I've never seen his shorts), but while he might crib more than a few visuals from del Toro, Muschietti succeeds in establishing a style very much his own. While his creature effects are certainly good enough, where he astounds is in his ability to fool the audience. As a director, he succeeds in hiding things in plain sight, or just off screen, where a simple tilt of our perspective opens up floodgates of tension and terror. On more than one occasion, the audience will witness what they think is a perfectly normal instance, only for the next moment to reveal that everything they thought they knew was a lie, often putting them in a state of panic as they struggle to discover the truth. That is Muschietti's greatest strength, and it's thankfully brought to the forefront often.

Big twist: she's his sister! (Obligatory Games of Thrones reference)
The acting is also top notch, most notably because of the peerless Chastain. I know I seem to say this every review, but she is one of the new greats; not only does she wow us by sinking completely into this role of newly-minted mother figure, but Mama goes all out in focusing on her trials and tribulations as a parental figure to the two children. While Abigail is gleefully rough around the edges (and unafraid to cuss out loud in front of her charges), it's both fun and funny watching her grow as a character and an unexpected mother. She brings a life to the role that most actresses can only dream of, and is solely responsible for keeping this film from becoming boring or one-noted. The rest of the cast is talented but not "Chastain-like". This is the first film I've seen Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in outside of his starring role on HBO's Game of Thrones, and when he was actually given something to do I was impressed. Unfortunately, his character was greatly scaled back (likely to showcase Chastain) and I can't help but feel that there was a whole other storyline for him cut from the final product. Daniel Kash has a nice, small role, but similarly doesn't get as much exploration. The closest in quality to Chastain must be the two children, played by Charpentier and Nelisse. While Charpentier competently leads more than a few scenes and is the more vocal of the two young actresses, I was most impressed by Nelisse's ability to create an almost animalistic, emotionally-stunted child through her body movement and limited vocabulary. She doesn't just look like a child acting out motions, but one wholly natural in her actions. Together, the pair add a layer of authenticity crucial to making Mama work on the most basic levels.

They just wanted to go on a hike!
Sadly, while the unique premise and great acting carry so far, it's Mama's script that ultimately lets it down. Illogical character motivations, plot holes, contrived plot devices and more overflow from the screenplay, especially in the film's final act. While very little of it is on the wrong side of cheese, what does manages to subvert all the good that Muschietti and company achieve. The ending, while certainly not pat or typical for this style of horror, still carries a veneer of schlock, reflecting the director's inexperience. You can't help but wonder what would have been if the more experienced del Toro had been behind the camera instead of the amateur Argentinian.

Creepy kids, decent flick.
Fortunately, what errors there are do little to detract from the overall atmosphere of Mama, which is by far the best movie of early 2013, easily coming in at #1. Muschietti succeeds in his first major outing, and I can't wait to see what he adds to his resume in the coming years. Of course, it helps to have such an artistic savant as Jessica Chastain atop your cast, but even without her this would have been a great old-school creep fest. If you're not into supernatural, clever psychological thrillers, then nothing I can say will convince you to see Mama. But even if you aren't the biggest fan of the genre, this scary movie is well worth a look. Scouting at the coming film release schedule, this might just be the best movie you see until Summer rolls around.

No comments: