The latest offering from Spanish filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro follows two feral little girls, abandoned in the woods with none but the mysterious “Mama” to watch over them for five years. When they are finally recovered by their uncle and his reluctant girlfriend, the two sisters bring Mama back with them.
By any measure, this is a disappointing film from Del Toro. His previous horror movies have pushed the boundaries of the genre, offering fantasy, tragedy and a strong emotional resonance. While I generally wouldn’t fault Del Toro for making a more traditional movie, I expected more from him on the storytelling front. He decided to produce (and help rewrite) Mama after seeing a short-film version, which – though incredibly creepy – did not have anything in the way of plot. But the figure of the terrifying “mama” figure caught his eye:
Del Toro has previously explored the mother-child relationship with great success. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the mother was full of love for her children, but weak, sickly and therefore absent – unable to protect them. So little Ofelia took it upon herself to try to rescue both her mother and baby brother. In The Orphanage, a frantic mother dedicates herself to finding her lost son, while another woman is consumed with rage and despair after her own child is stolen from her.
In Mama this dynamic is revisited in an incredibly shallow way, and without the mystery or charm of Del Toro’s other films. There are several creepy moments in Mama, but for the most part, little characterization and buildup are given that the movie is often unintentionally comical. The opening segment that shows how the girls came to live in the woods is so devoid of context as to seem completely bizarre.
Additionally, I felt very put-out by the awkward plot maneuvering to get Annabel (Jessica Chastain) alone with the girls, and remaining alone with them long after it ceased to make any kind of sense. Their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has been tirelessly searching for the girls for 5 years, and already has a connection with them based on the fact that he looks exactly like their late father. But it is immediately understood that his girlfriend, who has neither the skills nor the inclination to be a mother, will set aside her passion for music and stay at home with them. She is left with two severely traumatized girls as Lucas inexplicably heads off to work, though it has already been established that he works (i.e. “paints pictures”) from home. And for good measure, let’s send him off to investigate – something? – in the woods, just to make sure that Chastain is left alone even longer with the girls.
And why? Because men can’t/shouldn’t be afraid of the bogeyman? Because we derive some kind of satisfaction from watching a vulnerable woman tiptoe around every corner? I find that kind of “horror” to be cheap and unsatisfying. And in the other two movies I mentioned, Del Toro explored messages about love and family, adding elements of mystery and narrative depth that were non-existent in Mama. This is particularly disappointing from a filmmaker who allegedly thinks very deeply about the purpose and meaning of horror. From a 2011 interview in Time Magazine:
“Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.”
Maybe I missed the point, but I failed to see how any part of Mama was anti-establishment: “crazy” mothers and the mentally ill are demonized (though notably, disturbed and violent fathers are given a pass — “Save the girls” he says, what a change of heart!); young women who are relieved not to be pregnant must be cured of their unconventional ways and give in to the biological need to parent; and men must remain on the outside of the tight bond between mother and child.
I always imagined the sort of tagline for the concept, which was “A mother’s love is forever.” [Laughs] Because it absolutely immediately, for me, made it something relatable, like “all mothers turn into horrible things at some point,” and then you reconcile and it can be great or not. I thought the idea of that surpasses any origin. It’s such a strong thing that ultimately what this creature has is possessive love you know? A mother’s jealousy is really, really strong.
This is a surprisingly simplistic and reductive point of view from an extremely talented filmmaker, and I think it speaks volumes about what kind of message you’ll find in Mama. So go for a cliche, occasionally creepy, and somewhat sexist hour and a half, but don’t expect the quality you’re used to from Del Toro.