Thursday, January 24, 2013

Haunt You Every Day: MAMA

Mama is a delicately wrought horror movie that seems to operate from an underlying fairy-tale nightmare logic that makes it all the more scary when we’re occasionally plunged into actual nightmares of warped, fluid imagery and nestled waking-up fake-outs. These visions are what prod the characters towards discovering the nature of Mama and how she can be stopped, if at all. But that’s not until late in the game. For a long time, the title character is hidden away, a specter, a hint, an eerie presence in the characters’ lives. What is she, exactly? Is she a monster? A ghost? It’s unclear for quite a while, but what we see for sure is that something protected two little girls (only 1- and 3-years-old) after they’re cruelly abandoned in a cabin in the middle of nowhere by a despondent father, a father who just shot their mother off-screen minutes earlier.

The film picks up five years later. That man’s artist brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) lives with his rocker girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) in a small apartment. They have a mostly comfortable life, happy with one another’s company and without a desire for kids. However, he spends his spare time continuing to search for his missing brother and nieces. It’s still a shock when the girls are found feral, fearful, and full of stories about Mama, their apparently imaginary protector. Their psychologist (Daniel Kash) advocates for their placement in the home of their uncle, providing this freshly constituted family a spacious home on the condition that they agree to allow the girls to be studied. It makes sense to most involved. The girls are damaged by their five years missing, years filled with experiences that remain unknowable to those around them. They’re skittish and hesitant to approach the adults in their lives with anything less than caution.

As the girls’ new guardians feel their way towards a new normal, Mama arrives. We don’t see her, not really, but the long haunting tease brings with it horror tropes. Shadowy shapes that appear in doorways, fluttering insects that crawl along doorframes, and a mysterious accident that sidelines a member of the ensemble all add to the sense of unease. Andrés Muschietti, in his directorial debut, creates a terrific piece of sustained creepiness that’s broadly predictable, but pleasing in the specifics. The way dread twists mournfully into nearly every scene of the film creates a deeper fright than expected. In layered compositions that play upon who we know is in the house and what we’re shown of its architecture bring small shivers that bloom into full scares. A shot that finds a girl playing with an unseen someone in one room in the foreground, while the side of the frame looks down the hall through which, one by one, the other characters walk, is suddenly terrifying. Now that all the characters are accounted for, who is in that room interacting with that little girl?

The film finds fright from the understandable worry that can come from knowing that children adopted out of terrible situations have a past that their new parents might never be able to fully understand. Chastain is remarkable as a woman who is hesitantly embracing her new maternal position. She navigates her evolving relationship with these girls in a halting, nervous way that can’t ever fully reveal itself to them. She must stay strong for the kids, who are the true anchor of it all. These are incredibly controlled and expertly deployed child performances, steady, clear-eyed, and free of obvious ticks and tricks. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse (as well as Morgan McGarry and Maya and Sierra Dawe in the opening scene) are only impressive. These are girls who are emotionally wounded to various degrees, but can often seem like sweet, average, normal children. It’s in moments of subtle wrongness that the dread kicks in most strongly. The way Nélisse, especially, has of slyly glancing at dead space as if she’s seeing something in nothing in the frame is so suggestive of the haunting these girls have accumulated throughout their five years missing.

By the time Muschietti pulls out the standard horror movie jump scares and other assorted jolts on the way to Mama’s reveal and an extended climactic supernatural struggle, the film grows just a bit more standard than its opening would suggest. But it retains its insinuating, fragile emotional center. I watched some of the last five or ten minutes mouth agape. It becomes a film that’s literally haunted by connections that are difficult to sever. If there’s some kind of happy ending, it’s only because the characters have learned to let go. But a wholly happy ending is too much to ask from this movie that follows its nightmare logic to a suitably scarring conclusion. 

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