Review: Mom and Dad (USA 2017)

Mom and Dad, the latest film from Brian Taylor, one-half of the pair of madmen behind the miraculous Crank films, is similarly … well, apeshit bananas for lack of a better term. Taylor, working from his own screenplay, posits a world where a mysterious affliction is causing parents to turn on their own children, murdering them in the most expedient way.

It’s not completely new territory. Films have tackled similar themes before, as recently as the Joe Dante-helmed The Screwfly Solution (2006), which handled the theme by having all the men of the world turn homicidal against women. And, of course, the Italian genre classic, Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), a superior precursor to Children of the Corn that sees the situation reversed, with children murdering adults.

Like those films, in many ways, Mom and Dad plays out similar to a zombie film. Incidents accumulate in the background as with Night of the Living Dead, the Zack Snyder Dawn of the Dead remake, or Shaun of the Dead, and news reports and constant sirens subliminally reinforce the unease, all leading up to what in a zombie movie would be the outbreak scene, when hordes of parents come crashing into the school to visit savagery on their offspring. One of the characters even lampshades this, namechecking World War Z, though to my mind Mom and Dad is more reminiscent of what was to my mind both a far worse and far better film than the merely dull World War Z, the great, awful Maximum Overdrive.

But what really makes it different is that the parents remain themselves throughout. Cage and Blair bicker, and share tender moments while inexplicably trying to kill their kids. When things quiet down, they revel in small moments of spousal teamwork in a way that was shockingly familiar, except instead of trying to repair an oven, they’re trying to jerry rig it into a murder machine. And over and over, we see otherwise rational parents rationalizing what they are doing, or acting normal as long as they aren’t around their own children.

Unfortunately, one of the film’s greatest strengths – Nicholas Cage as the hapless father – is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Cage is in full wild-man mode, resulting in the usual entertaining insanity that makes him fun (and can makes films as terrible as Drive Angry watchable). Cage mugs, leers, freaks out, and generally chews the scenery with aplomb. However, he’s so unhinged from the beginning (even in flashbacks), that when he turns murderous it hardly seems like a surprise. Compared to Selma Blair, whose warts-and-all portrayal of an ordinary mother is all the more chilling when she turns filicidal, he’s in a completely different place.

I’m reminded of Sergio Leone’s counter-intuitive casting of the normally saintly Henry Fonda as a villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, or Billy Wilder’s similar use of Fred MacMurray. I have to wonder what it would have been like if the Cage role was essayed by a Michael Gross or Kyle Chandler – someone whose heel turn would have felt less preordained.

Aside from Cage and Blair, the performances are fine. Anne Winters plays the daughter, Carly, as resourceful but not unrealistic. Her Carly isn’t a horrible daughter, but she’s a typical phone-obsessed, mildly deceitful teen, and her little brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) is on the bratty side. I recognized a lot of the sibling interactions from my own home.

Others don’t fare as well – Carly’s boyfriend Damon (Robert Cunningham) is a bit of a cipher, and her friend Riley (Olivia Crocicchia) is such a parody of a vapid swipe-era twit that you’re rooting for her to die from the moment she appears on screen. But there are some great cameos, including one from the legendary Lance Heriksen that I won’t spoil, that more than compensate.

Overall, Mom and Dad a fun, darkly comedic take on the fraught parent/child dynamic, where the ones you love the most are also the ones that drive you crazy.

3 out of 4 stars (Very good).

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