by Patrick Bromley
For some reason, I've had a pretty rough go of it with movies lately. It seems that everything I watch has some sort of horribly disturbing scene or image that puts me off wanting to see any more movies. In the last week alone, I've seen movies in which kids and babies are shot in the opening moments, cats are drowned in real time, pregnant women are repeatedly stabbed and murdered, children drowned in the bathtub, aborted fetuses mutate into monsters...you name it. I'm sure it has something to do with a diet consisting heavily of genre and exploitation movies, but this phenomenon has bled over into regular viewing, too: prestige Oscar bait, festival darlings, all of it. Maybe there's something in the collective consciousness these days that creates this phenomenon. Maybe it's just my bad luck in picking what to watch. Whatever the case, it has really taken a toll on me as of late.
Enter Mom and Dad, the new film written and directed by Brian Taylor (of Neveldine/Taylor, the team responsible for the Crank movies and Gamer, all of which I am a fan), in which a mysterious outbreak causes parents to want to murder their children. Fun, right? Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair play the parents of two kids, one teenage girl (Anne Winters) and one 10-year old boy (Zackary Arthur), who wind up in mom and dad's crosshairs when the outbreak occurs. And that's pretty much the movie.
Cooties in reverse, only stronger because it speaks to a more primal, universal fear. Not everyone knows what it's like to be surrounded by kids, as in Cooties, but all of us can relate to what it would feel like if the people we trusted and loved more than anyone suddenly turned on us and tried to take us out. In Mom and Dad's best moments, Taylor understands what is frightening about his own premise. He's capable of conjuring some genuinely disturbing images, like an early scene of a mom abandoning her car on the train tracks, kid still inside (trigger warning), or the movie's scariest shot, in which a bunch of new fathers stand outside the nursery of a maternity ward, angrily eyeing their babies through the glass. There's something nightmarish about that total inversion of natural law.
But this is Brian Taylor we're talking about, so Mom and Dad also has to exhibit some of his trademark brattiness and immaturity, undercutting most of the horror. The most egregious example comes minutes before that maternity ward shot, when a woman tries to murder her newborn baby (like, the umbilical cord is still attached, that's how newborn) and Taylor slathers the soundtrack with Roxette's "It Must've Been Love." Ha ha! Isn't this all so funny? No, ass, it isn't, and you trying to make it funny turns something disturbing into some shitty fratboy joke. Therein lies more of the mess that is Mom and Dad: Taylor pitches so much of the material to be black comedy, but he's only occasionally successful. There are moments that are truly dark and funny, most of which come courtesy of the actors, whether it's Selma Blair casually waving hello to a neighbor on her way to get a garden hose so she can asphyxiate her kids, or Nic Cage giddily talking about them throwing up as the gas gets them. Most of the humor fails to land, though, because Taylor's aesthetic approach is just too over the top for the gallows comedy to be funny. You can't pummel people with a sick joke. You have to let them meet you halfway.
I don't think it's my recent run of upsetting movie selections that got in the way of my liking Mom and Dad. The movie itself took care of that. There's a whole lot of stuff in the movie that's good: Cage certainly has his moments, and Selma Blair is very, very good as the character who's the most sympathetic until she isn't (and even then, she still kind of is). Moments are, at times, truly disturbing, while others are actually funny in the darkly comic way Taylor intends. The finished product is less than its parts, though, making me wish another writer had been given the chance to take a pass at the script and another director had been calling the shots. Taylor deserves credit for what works, but he's also fully to blame for all the stuff that doesn't.