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The common phrase “Once upon a time” opens Andrés Muschietti’s Mama. These four words suggest that we’re in for a fairytale – or something like one – and the opening scenes, which show a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) getting into a car accident and taking his two daughters, Victoria and Lilly (Megan Carpenter and Isabelle Nélisse), to a small house in the woods, are tense and suspenseful. Even the opening credits show childlike drawings that suggest an old folk story or fable. But for all the fantastic as well as fantastical setup, the rest of the Guillermo del Toro-produced Mama plays quite like the typical modern-day horror movie you might expect it to be.
Five years pass since the man and his daughters’ disappearance, but his brother (also played by Coster-Waldau) hasn’t stopped looking for them. Lo and behold, the children are found right where their father left them, but the years and conditions of their living haven’t been kind to them – or so it seems. Malnourishment and strange behavior suggests they’ve been all alone, but they constantly speak of someone called “Mama,” a caretaker and nurturer. The children go home with their uncle and his romantic partner, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). If you can believe it, strange things happen around the house as the children settle in and adults adjust to their new responsibilities as guardians.
Mama meanders in mediocrity on the whole, not because of its adherence to traditional horror formula, but because it clings to that formula without much to show for it. It becomes clear at this point – when things go bump in the night, that is – that the script for Mama, co-written by Muschietti, is quite the bear, taking so few risks with not only its story but also its moments or peril.
To sum it up without spoilers – though much of the story takes little difficulty to decipher – you’re more or less in for lots of jump scares, confused glances, and odd dream sequences (its PG-13 rating suggests as much). Cinematographer Antonio Riestra comes to the rescue, giving suspense to even the most mundane and obvious “scare” scenes with his framing and extensive use of long takes. His shots are a true thing of beauty amidst the ugliness of the script, though you can only do so much with a predictable story.
Carpenter and Nélisse put in strong work as the disturbed children, and Coster-Waldau successfully tackles the double duty of playing the children’s father and his brother. But let’s really thank the powers that be for the prolific Chastain, who nearly saves Mama. Sure, her Annabel lacks the undeniable tenacity of her role as Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but Chastain throws herself into the role in a way few actresses could or would.
One scene in particular reveals everything you need to know about Annabel: she gets strict with the kids for a moment, but then she turns on the charm. It’s a character who’s rough around the edges but who desperately wants to take charge of a difficult situation and become a better person. Again, we get all of this in just one scene (one exchange, really) and it’s all because of Chastain. She explores her characters more than the screenwriters.
Even as Chastain delves into and gives dimension to a flat character, her magnetic work (yes, it’s magnetic even if she always look like she’s late for her shift at Hot Topic) can’t save Mama from its sheer predictability. The pieces of the overall “mystery” come together more quickly than the film wants them to, though the small details do take some time to shuffle through. But Mama runs into its worst troubles during its third act. As the entire enigma of Mama comes to light, the remainder of the film plays as if the screenwriters didn’t know where to go with its conclusion and picked an idea out of a hat instead of trying to take it somewhere legitimate.
Mama won’t quench your thirst for the next great horror film due to the limitations it sets on itself and its cringe-inducing third act, but at least this gives us an excuse to watch Chastain work her cinematic magic once again.