Mark Reviews Movies


MAMA (2013)

1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Andrés Muschietti

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Jane Moffat

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 1/18/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 18, 2013

Characters repeatedly ask, "Who is Mama?" In case we're unclear about the titular figure in Mama, the screenplay helpfully explains to us three times exactly who she is. Of course, the explanations barely matter, given that any kind of suspense or mystery surrounding the supernatural character is undermined once the movie shows us what Mama is at the end of the prologue. The pieces of information that follow are just the mechanics.

That prologue is the most chilling part of Mama, though for reasons the remainder of the movie bypasses. Setting itself up as a warped fairy tale with an opening title card that scrawls out "Once upon a time," the opening details a regular man who, after the most recent financial crisis, kills some of his co-workers, returns home to murder his wife, and takes his two young daughters in his escape. After a car crash, the trio ends up at a cabin in the woods, where they take shelter. Eventually, the father decides what he believes he must do, but before he can kill his elder daughter, two ghastly, brown arms wrap themselves around his face and pull him into the darkness of the room. The figure attached to the arms approaches the children in a subjective camera shot; from that and the montage of a child's drawings over the credits, we gather that the presence watches over the girls.

This is Mama. Characters can pose questions about it; director Andrés Muschietti can provide reveal after anticlimactic reveal of it. Nothing changes in our perception of the ghostly personage, except perhaps in our unwillingness to go along with Muschietti and fellow screenwriters Barbara Muschietti (the director's sister) and Neil Cross' attempts to sympathize with Mama after the character's history has been revealed (again, three times). Mama is a force of raw but warped maternal instinct, willing and able to dispense supernatural punishment to anyone whom it perceives getting in the way of its self-appointed duties.

Those are challenged five years later when the efforts of the girl's uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to find them succeed. Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) have survived in the cabin on a diet that has left them emaciated (and digital). They have become feral, crawling on all fours and becoming defensive when approached by others.

Dr. Dreyfus (Daniel Kash), the girls' psychiatrist, begins his strange fascination with Mama almost immediately. Despite the countless other aspects of their psychological state, for some reason the good doctor's testimony at a custody hearing to determine if Lucas and his live-in girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) will have guardianship over the girls focuses almost exclusively on the figure he assumes they invented in their minds. Exposition must be inserted somewhere—no matter how awkwardly.

Victoria and Lilly stay with Lucas and Annabel in a house provided by Dreyfus' institute. The couple will raise the girls; the doctor will study them.

To no one's surprise, Mama has followed them to the house. The movie offers plenty of scenes in which the ghost's presence is revealed to little effect besides establishing what we already know—that Mama has followed them to the house. Lilly plays tug-of-war with a blanket in her room, and the static shot looking from the hallways shows Victoria appearing somewhere else. Clearly, it's Mama in the room. Annabel puts away laundry in the girls' room as a form covered by a blanket that she assumes is Lilly sits in the corner, and Muschietti cuts to the kitchen where Victoria announces that Lilly is with her. Clearly, it's Mama in the room. The process repeats itself, with Mama materializing and disappearing at the will of the screenplay's attempts to gin up nonexistent tension.

Save for one instance before the climax in which Mama tries to dispatch a character, the screenplay runs around in circles while Dreyfus starts an investigation into whoever Mama might be or might have been. He encounters that most contrived device: a character—in this instance, a public records employee (Diane Gordon)—who has all the vital information conveniently at her disposal, even if that means she searches for a living person in records that over a century old and has a pretty well-thought-out theory about ghosts despite saying that she isn't a religious person. She explains the story to Dreyfus twice, and Annabel has a first-person dream of that sad tale (It turns out to be a dream within dream, just in case the other shock effects aren't cheap enough).

Once everyone is finally on the same page, they can start doing the requisite questionable things, like wandering off alone to the cabin in the woods just in time for night to fall when they arrive. The most questionable part of Mama, though, comes with its climax, as Muschietti tries to elicit pathos from a twisted digital creation and a final act offers a misguided, inexplicable, and perverse sort of sacrifice.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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