Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Directed by: Andreś Muschietti (debut)
Written by: Neil Cross, Andreś Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti (debut)
There’s an interesting dichotomy at work in the career of Guillermo del Toro. When it comes to directing, he’s known for his dark flights of fancy, plunging his films into twisted worlds haunted by fantastical, meticulously-crafted heroes and villains filled with pathos and often blurry lines between good and evil. As a producer, however, del Toro often lends his name to horror projects that begin with promise of del Toro-esque quality and end up as routine scary movie snores. The latest film presented by del Toro, “Mama,” unfortunately continues that trend.
“Mama” stars two-time Academy Award-nominee Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as punk rock girl Annabel who, along with her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), ends up taking care of Lucas’ young nieces after they’re found in a nearly feral state prowling around a remote cabin. The girls have been living seemingly on their own for five years after their father Jeffrey (also Coster-Waldau, for some reason) murdered their mother and fled with his daughters in tow. As Jeffrey prepares to pull the trigger on his oldest daughter, a mysterious specter snatches him away to his implied death and takes her place as the girls’ guardian, know to them as Mama.
“Mama” arrives with an interesting premise – feral children with a seemingly otherworldly caretaker readjusting to normal society – but ends up disappointing early on. First-time director Andreś Muschietti tips his hand too soon by revealing Mama’s supernatural status in the first act.
Muscheitti, who also shares a screenwriting credit, deflates any psychological tension the situation might naturally create (is Mama a figment of the girls’ imagination? Is one of them actually Mama?) and instead turns the rest of film into an hour of the audience waiting for everyone on screen to discover this malevolent ghost we’ve already seen in action. The final act of the film wallows in a few half-prophetic dream sequences before limping to a conclusion that throws plot points out the window to eke out an ending indifferent to the rest of the film.
On another note, the sheer ferocity of Mama is puzzling. She’s introduced saving a young girl from being murdered by her father, for which her savage behavior is wholly appropriate. When she ends up putting well-meaning people into comas for investigating why moths are crawling out of a moldy portal to another dimension that’s randomly appeared in a hallway, well…not so appropriate.