Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2018

Mom and Dad

Honey, I murdered the kids

On problem-solving, teamwork, and the quickest (if not cleanest) solution to your pathetic mid-life crisis

Mom and Dad
Momentum Pictures
Director: Brian Taylor
Screenplay: Brian Taylor
Starring: Selma Blair, Nicolas Cage, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert T. Cunningham, Olivia Crocicchia, Samantha Lemole, Joseph D. Reitman and Lance Henriksen
Rated R / 1 hour, 23 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

Relatability is an overvalued metric. But when a movie premised on the compulsive murder of children by their parents winds around to a concluding note so familiar in its sentiment that it's practically a proverb, that movie has admirably earned some very unexpected relatability stripes. Brian Taylor's Mom and Dad does just that, landing on a punchline - immediately followed by a cut to black - that embodies the absurd spirit of the preceding 80 minutes and with equal absurdity draws a direct link to common middle-aged (parental) anxieties.

The entire film playfully floats along that same boundary. Taylor underlines those adult anxieties and uses them as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the premise itself, which otherwise goes unexplained. In its behavior, Mom and Dad is essentially a zombie movie stripped down to its core component: one group of people is compulsively trying to kill another. It just happens that the zombies are parents, and their own children are the prey.

It is a widely understood rule that, if a movie takes the time to observe a teacher or professor giving a lecture, that lecture will have explicit thematic relevance to the movie itself. Taylor gleefully embraces this custom, giving us a high-school teacher who delivers an impromptu lecture on the concept of planned obsolescence. All he's really talking about is technology - using cell phones as his object lesson, and the way tech companies design their products to be necessarily replaced by their next line - but in the movie's eyes the reference point is the kids themselves. They, too, have been created to replace their direct predecessors.

Among our adult characters we get brief flashbacks, private laments, lingering symbolic reminders of their disappeared youth. Dad (Nicolas Cage) despairingly looks at that old coupe in the garage - the one he's kept all these years - and wistfully talks about how much ass he used to get, and how much that car contributed to the tally. Mom (Selma Blair) regrets missing her chance to be a rock star, to the point of humiliating herself when she goes back to see an old friend about maybe giving it another shot. She goes to the gym every day; over drinks she and her similarly jaded, similarly 40ish friend lament the futile struggle to keep their bodies young for as long as they can. The friend is openly (if drunkenly) envious of her teenage daughter's figure.

Taylor takes a certain mischievous joy in using those grownup misgivings and regrets to establish his justification for what is about to take place. In making the effort to frame it all in those suburban-existential thematic terms, he offers not just a subconscious, instinctive explanation but, in a deliciously sick way, a Darwinian rationalization. As always, there is no greater threat to the current generation than the next one.

All at once, parents become sort of ... activated. As if by hypnotic command. Or as if becoming sentient for the first time. A buried genetic impulse is triggered; a dormant survival response is suddenly misfiring wildly (or perhaps firing all too well). Killing one's progeny* becomes an urge - no, more than an urge; an intuitive need. Filicide as a primal instinct.

* If everything goes according to plan, orphans will more or less rule the world when all is said and done. Also, assuming this is all coming from deep-seated biological links, the collateral damage of this murderous outbreak could be some pretty awkward conversations between couples when one father mysteriously has no innate desire to kill one (or more) of the kids.

As it all gets put into motion, the film playfully reinterprets common imagery of the all-American parent - like the typical crowd of parents out in front of campus near the end of the school day waiting to pick their kids up, here amplified as an increasingly frenzied mob of moms and dads so bloodthirsty they're climbing the front gates and charging past cops just to get their murderous hands on the sons and daughters who sabotaged their very youth. They hunt them down across the football field, and down the street, and into the back yard. They greet them with weapons at the front door; they roll them into oncoming traffic. And in the case of one woman in particular, fate picked the wrong - or right, depending on your point of view - day to give birth; that magical moment when she first locks eyes with her newborn, followed immediately by an attempt to suffocate it to death. (For all the macabre delight Taylor wrings out of his premise, this scene stands out as one that doesn't really take full advantage; it's almost like he's trying to check an obvious scenario off his checklist but was otherwise unable to find much to do with it.)

But Mom and Dad really clicks in once it narrows its scope to one home, and one set of parents hilariously trying to murder one pair of kids.

In fact, it's almost sweet, in a reassuring sort of way. It's something Mom and Dad can do together. They haven't had a lot of alone time lately. They've been fighting a bit. Work and parental responsibilities have stretched them thin. A recent attempt to build a man cave did not go over well, and ended in an act of sabotage that involved a sledgehammer and a Cage-tastic rendition of "The Hokey Pokey." This kid-killing business - it's something Mom and Dad kinda need. Something they need to do for themselves, as a couple.

The challenge is, the little bastards are more slippery than they anticipated. Most everyone else in the neighborhood seems to have done their murders without too much of a hitch. But our couple has their work cut out for them. Detached teen daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and kid brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) knew what was coming and prepared accordingly. And so it becomes a simple matter of strategy between two factions who've no doubt been in close conflict plenty of times before.

There's a great matter-of-fact quality to the way the film's back half plays out, particularly the time spent with Cage and Blair. The initial chase left them empty-handed, and now the kids have barricaded themselves in the basement. It's a problem to be solved, and seeing them work together to solve it is, frankly, a heartwarming show of teamwork and cooperation. They make a good team; you can see why they got together in the first place. They even finish each other's elaborate carbon monoxide poisoning schemes.

Killing the kids becomes the ultimate home-improvement project. There is no hesitation on their part - whatever genetic impulse has been fired is non-negotiable - and so it's just a matter of planning, scheduling, problem-solving. They bounce various ideas off each other and attempt to put their plans in motion - sometimes more successfully than others - while trying to fend off their children's various counter-measures and survival methods. One particularly indelible sequence, largely on the strength of its writing and editing, cuts between Cage suggesting one possible plan and an earlier moment, involving one of the kids, that invalidates that plan. Taylor turns it into a delightful back-and-forth conversation between the two moments, before finally delivering a knockout of a punchline.

That the filmmaking never pushes the parents into any psychosis or hysteria - they're completely level-headed, completely composed; they just have to murder the kids is all - keeps Mom and Dad's deadpan balancing act afloat. It's rarely been so much fun watching a married couple come together to sort out a dilemma.

Aside from its more blatant intentions, the film is also a sort of sideways answer to a different type of film altogether. There are so many stories rooted in the crushing ennui of past-their-prime suburban couples and the idealism they long left behind. Such characters have come up with so many ways to try to recapture their youth - the affairs, the escapes, the divorces, the transformations, the nervous breakdowns. Yes, a sharper satirist could have done more with the concept on certain levels; but the absurd mayhem that Taylor delivers is well worth the effort. What the movie suggests, to all those disaffected thirty- and forty-somethings, is: why not go straight to the source? Cut out the symbolic middlemen and just kill the kids already. With a wink and a smile, Mom and Dad takes just that route to its title characters' self-preservation. Nobody ever said a midlife crisis couldn't be bloody.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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