Thirty years from now, Jessica Chastain‘s lifetime achievement awards should be something to behold. The mercurial actress appeared suddenly in 2011, fully formed, and has since played housewives, Shakespeare’s Virgilia in Coriolanus opposite Ralph Fiennes, and a Mossad agent, all with fluid ease. Last year, she won her second Academy Award nomination in as many years, for her remarkable turn as a government agent on the heels of Osama Bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. She’s been on stage with Al Pacino, starred as a nineteenth-century heiress on Broadway, and just landed the coveted lead role in Liv Ullmann‘s upcoming screen adaptation of the play, Miss Julie. Now here she is, all sleeve tattoos and Lizbeth Salander jet-black hair, dropped smack-dab in the middle of Mama, a generic PG-13 horror movie that creates plenty of mood, but generates few scares, and likely would’ve failed completely (as opposed to mostly) without her as its center.
I like that Chastain can play punk. She’s effective here as Annabel, a guitarist in a rock band, whose life quickly comes undone when her artist boyfriend, Lucas (a bland Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from HBO’s Game of Thrones), suddenly finds himself the primary caregiver of his two young nieces, Victoria and Lily. A quick prologue sets things up: the siblings’ father, depressed over the death of his marriage, is about to shoot both his girls and himself in an abandoned shack in the woods, when he’s snatched into the shadows by an unseen entity. Several years later, the girls are found, still in the shack, and having undergone profound changes in their personalities as a result of the trauma and isolation. While Victoria still has the use of her words, the younger Lily has been reduced to a feral state, crawling on her hands and knees, her face filthy, communication all but impossible. An estranged aunt wants custody of the girls, but the psychiatrist in charge of their case thinks Uncle Lucas is the better candidate, and moves the newly-formed family into a state-owned house so he can continue to observe his patients. It soon becomes clear that the girls have latched on to something else in the house–an imaginary playmate, perhaps? They call it Mama.
Then everything changes, as a tragic accident leaves Annabel in charge of the house–and the girls. Mama doesn’t seem too happy about the situation, her jealousy exploding in the manner of all things that go bump in the night. Apparitions appear, doors slam on their own. We’re treated to a couple of cheap jump scares, replete with classic musical stingers designed to manipulate our emotions. Oddly enough, just as the film begins to devolve into cliched haunted house storytelling, Chastain kicks things into gear. Her Annabel has no interest in being a mother, and indeed, even tells one of the girls as much: “Don’t ever call me Mama. You can call me Annabel.” She’s apathetic about her new charges, more concerned that her carefree lifestyle has been interrupted; but when the real dangers present themselves, and she realizes the girls truly are battling for their immortal souls, her natural motherly instincts kick in. It’s a welcome change to find a character of some substance in a horror film that has very little. In fact, Mama is so pedestrian, that we get not only the Father That Doesn’t Know What’s Going On, but my favorite hackneyed character, The Librarian That Knows It All. You know what that is, right? That’s the helpful librarian who always seems to know the history of the house or town or family, and is even able to miraculously produce a book that contains all the information the protagonist–and we–will need to move forward in the story.
Let’s face it, none of this is high-brow stuff. Writer-director Andrés Muschietti does what he can with his own soggy material, by injecting a bit of atmosphere into the film. The cinematography is suitably dark and shadowy; as ominous as it could possibly be. Mama, itself (herself?), is just the right amount of creepy in an unrealistic CGI way. But those things aren’t enough to sustain the film. With the exception of Chastain, and Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisset, as Victoria and Lily, respectively, the characters and performances are perfunctory, and the ending, when it comes, is a letdown. Who wants to wade through 95 minutes of ho-hum horror for a bland and murky denouement?