Guillermo Del Toro seems to put his name on just about everything these days – some great, some not so great – but here’s a film from a hot up-and-comer who definitely deserves the rub. Adapting his 3-minute short of the same name, Argentinean director Andres Muschietti is able to craft a slick if unoriginal mood piece that delivers a few eerie thrills and benefits massively from the stirring presence of Jessica Chastain in the lead role.
The film opens as a man named Jeffrey, sent into an irreparable tailspin by the 2008 financial meltdown, hits rock-bottom, deciding to kill himself and his two young daughters, Victoria and Lilly. However, fate has other plans; a mysterious unseen entity saves the girls from sure death while disposing of their father.
Five years later, Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is still searching for his nieces with the help of his girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), when the pair are miraculously found safe and released into Lucas and Annabel’s custody. To cope with the trauma of their abandonment, however, the kids have created an imaginary guardian, Mama, who as you can guess, isn’t so imaginary.
Mama is a film all about atmosphere, milking its grotty interior shooting locations and chilly snow-kissed landscapes to build a quietly unsettling mood. Though the film has its share of outlandish scare tactics, Muschietti smartly doesn’t indulge the bombastic score and tension chords too much; many scenes throughout are purely silent, suggesting a certain confidence in both the material and the patience of the audience. Savvy blocking and shot composition causes several scenes – mostly memorable a tug of war between Lilly and an out-of-frame blanket – to be bracingly effective in their simplicity.
When the film does occasionally explode into brutality, Muschietti makes the most of it, especially during the batty, CGI-filled finale, which also functions adequately on an emotional level due to the strong performances from both the two child actors and lead Chastain. Sure, Mama is awash in plenty of the cliches we’re all familiar with – there’s a creepy old woman spouting exposition and the occasional jump scare can be anticipated a mile off – but Mama also doesn’t invest itself too much in the particulars of its narrative web. As it turns out, the trajectory of the supernatural component is, to its merit, pretty simple at the end of the day.
Two undeniably creaky story threads do saunter their way in during act three, however; a subplot involving Victoria and Lilly’s aunt who suspects they are being abused after seeing some bruises is completely perfunctory, and one scene in which a character uses a camera to see in the dark is derivative of at least a dozen prior horror films.
What makes Mama work is the aforementioned style and the credibility of the performances; Daniel Kash is suitably eerie as the slimy psychiatrist with an unhealthy professional interest in the two young girls, who themselves live up to the creepy kid stereotype with moody aplomb.
Jessica Chastain, scarcely recognisable as a tattooed young woman with black, short hair who wears Converse and plays bass guitar – a far cry from her Oscar-nominated work on Zero Dark Thirty – is easily the best of show, and like seemingly everything she tries, the role fits like a glove. Giving her some additional edge to work with is the unexpectedly nuanced characterisation; Anabel isn’t completely the sympathetic type you might anticipate, clearly reluctant to take the two kids on initially, but she’s likeable precisely for this reason, because she’s believable.
All in all, this is stylishly efficient and well acted horror fare that doesn’t bash the viewer over the head with its mythology.
Mama is out now in the US and in UK cinemas on February 22nd.
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