"Look Lilly, a cherry."
Though his work as a director is sadly sporadic, Guillermo DelToro has a talent for finding and producing films by young directors with an eye for creepy visuals. Two of his more notable "discoveries" are Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) & Vincenzo Natali (Splice) and you can now add a third to that list, Andres Muschietti, whose debut feature was 2013's Mama. While it is a film that has myriad issues that one could nitpick & cause the film to suffer a death by a thousand cuts, it is an undeniable stylistic & atmospheric triumph that I would adamantly recommend to any horror fans.
The film opens with one of the creepier prologues I've seen recently with a deranged businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) absconding with his three year old & infant daughters after having murdered their mother. When his car careens off the road, he finds an abandoned cabin, and just as he is about to murder the girls as well, a spirit of some kind drags him out of the cabin and kills him instead. Fast forward five years later, the girls' uncle Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) is married to Annabel (Jessica Chastain), and they seem content to be living a childless existence.
When the girls are discovered still alive in the abandoned cabin, Lucas convinces Annabel that they should adopt the girls and give them an attempt at a normal life. The girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) & Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are borderline feral having somehow survived alone in the woods, yet they come to live with Lucas & Annabel on the condition that they see a therapist (Daniel Kash). When strange things begin to happen in their home, Annabel becomes convinced that the spirit, which killed their father and kept them safe for the last five years, has moved with the girls into their home as well.
First things first, the film bears all the hallmarks of a director making his feature debut with a genre picture (flashy editing, lots of dolly shots & rack focus, interesting composition, etc) but it has an undeniable assurance to it that most debut features do not. The highest compliment I can pay is that it feels like the work of someone that's made several films already. The sound editing is fantastic, the character actors that populate the smaller roles are appropriately bizarre & creepy, and the whole film feels very well planned, thought out & executed.
Some of the shots are downright ingenious, such as one where we see Lilly playing tug of war with someone just out of shot in her room. The way the shot is framed, we also see both Victoria & Annabel walk through the shot, so we're made aware that there's clearly no one else she could possibly be playing with in her room. It's the kind of thing that does a lot without doing much at all, and I was impressed by how many of the scenes did so much with very very little.
At the risk of entering spoiler territory, I won't go into what my specific issues were with the entire third act, but the film comes precipitously close to jumping the shark in the last twenty minutes or so. I was ultimately pleased with the conclusion, despite an almost preposterous deus ex machina reason for a character coming to the rescue, but I'm willing to overlook the unbelievable hurdles they jumped to get to what I thought was a very good ending.
Jessica Chastain seemed back in 2011 that she was an actress to watch, and her work here does nothing to cause any loss of faith in that assumption. Her work here as a woman that is clearly alone in not wanting to be a mother is very good, and she elevates the prototypical female horror lead into a fully three-dimensional woman. Coster-Waldau is good as well, though his role is far less substantial than Chastain's, but his work, particularly in the prologue, is very good. Both girls, including the very young actress that plays Victoria in the prologue, are also outstanding, and while I truly worry about what they may have been exposed to on the set of a film like this, I trust this filmmaker enough to have the wherewithal to keep most of the horrors hidden from them.
Overall, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Mama. While it's certainly not a film I think I'll revisit any time soon, it most assuredly put me on board for whatever Muschietti does as a director in the future. Much like Bayona's second film, The Impossible, showed what a truly talented director he was, so too do I think that Muschietti's next film will further confirm that he is a true talent behind the camera. Horror fans should most definitely seek out Mama, and in particular, not be scared off by its PG-13 rating. The film wisely keeps most of the nasty stuff confined to the audiences' imaginations, and that makes it a much better film as a result.
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]