In his indispensable book, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet states that the most important decision he has to make before starting the production of a film is to determine what the film is about in the first place; not the plot of the film, but what its themes are, what it means, to him and to the audience. He goes on to say that certain films are only about the plot and that's okay if they can make you feel scared or emotional or whatever else. Lumet's words were ringing in my ears as I watched Mama, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain's latest effort in dominating all cinema, because the harder I tried to figure what Mama was about, the more confused I got.
The plot of the film goes something like this: a man kills his wife and drives his daughters away from home. An accident steers his car off a snowy path and he finds himself in a haunted cabin. His intention is to kill his daughters before committing suicide, but he's snatched away and killed by a mysterious creature who then feeds the daughters cherries out of the dark to keep them alive. Five years later the girls are found by their uncle who never gave up his relentless pursuit. They've developed bestial characteristics and after a brief transition period under supervision, they're left with their uncle and his girlfriend (Chastain) on the condition that they remain subjects of a psychological study. Mama being a horror film, things predictably go awry as the girls continuously interact with the unknown titular character.
Beneath that surface, Mama isn't really about anything. It attempts to be, but its mythology is so muddled that every road it embarks on hits a dead end. What is the film really trying to say about motherhood, for instance? It seems to be the main theme here insofar as, well, it's about motherhood, but it doesn't have anything particularly intelligent to say about it. Is characterizing Annabel (Chastain) as a rock musician meant to emphasize her nurturing instincts in contrast? Is her motherly affection for the kids who bear no relation to her meant to create a sense of empathy between her and the mysterious Mama? What, if anything, is Mama's deformed figure meant to convey? Is it the burden of her guilt, her mental disability, or is it just because this is a horror film and if the mystery is revealed to be a woman in human form the audience won't find it horrifying enough? All these are actually small problems that sidestep the biggest issue - that a fairly satisfying first act veers into an unacceptably misconceived fairy tale with no thematic resolution.
Of course, Mama doesn't necessarily have to be about anything if it can perform its one main function - to scare us - but the problem is that after a while, Mama fails in that respect as well, for the structure of the film is set up entirely episodically. Each episode begins during the calm before the storm, in which one adult - most often Chastain, but in a couple of sequences her boyfriend or the psychiatrist - is at peace with the two girls until a noise or a shadow creeps in, anxiety settles in, the source of the distress is searched for to no avail, we get a glimpse of the mysterious Mama and the sequence almost invariably ends with one character looking off camera to a corner of the frame. With the aid of overused sound effects that induce cheap thrills, these sequences are somewhere between eerie to terrifying at first, but they become less and less effective with every repetition, until they are completely subdued by the actual appearance of Mama. At that point, the whole enterprise becomes a total farce, partly because of the reasons stated above about the mythology, but also because the visual effects on the spectral presence that is so crucial to the narrative are laughably awful; because the creature that is meant to look menacing enough to scare us and gentle enough for the kids to connect to looks like neither. She's demented and disfigured, but purposelessly conceived, with no regard to what meaning she's meant to evoke in the viewer.
To be fair to the film, there's a little bit of good in it too. Chastain, with the weight of an ungodly wig on her shoulders, still manages to give depth to a poorly written character. Her Annabel strikes just the right balance between protective and fragile and the 'punk chick' image surprisingly fits her like a glove. There are interesting moments in children's transition from their animalistic form, thought I wish they'd been fleshed out more. And there is one death sequence in the cabin in the woods that is genuinely frightening despite being as predictable as the weather in The South Pole. But that's about as far as I can go with the merits without stretching it to the cool tattoos on Chastain's arms.