Directed By Tate Taylor
Starring – Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis
The Plot – In this new psychological horror-thriller from Tate Taylor and Blumhouse, a lonely woman (Spencer) befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn’t get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.
Rated R for violent/disturbing material, adult language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use
– High Octavia. While the rest of the performances mostly by the teenage cast don’t live up to anything outside of the conventional box of adolescent youth, the work by the film’s central antagonist is treading new ground for the decades of experience that the Academy Award winner has gained. Spencer’s Ma channels just enough loneliness to make you feel for her character, yet equally enough maniacal mange to remember why some people are better left alone in the first place. Octavia’s commitment to giving this character the proper amount of energy and growing disappearance of nuance sanity proves she is having the time of her life with the role, and that raw precision to insanity makes her especially engaging for the audience, especially being one of the only female black psychopaths on-screen in movie history. Side note- Screw Mark Wahlberg, I want to listen to Octavia talk to animals for the rest of my life. Seriously the funniest shit I’ve ever heard.
– Tuned-in tone. One thing that Blumhouse usually manages to attain more times than not is this perfect compromise of tone and seriousness for the movie that gives their films a hip edge with younger moviegoing audiences. Continuing this tradition is “Ma”, a film not afraid to show its personality with timely awkward laughs, or a barrage of thrills that articulately depicts the evolution of the script. This is very much a film that I had a lot of fun with, but one that also surprised me for how much emphasis is given to the coveted R-rating that often times feels like a reason to get extreme for the sake of shock violence. This one instead takes its time, and does so while solidifying an indulging atmosphere that allows you to forget about the cares of the world for 90 minutes of calculated revenge that constantly pokes and prods at the audience that it knows so well.
– Double tiered storytelling. Aside from the real time narrative that much of the movie’s attention is dedicated to, there is an addition subplot that occasionally appears detailing Ma’s mysterious past, giving us insight for why she is the way she is. As to where this cliche of explaining too much about the mystery usually soils the mystique of the character for me, this angle provides blocks of knowledge not only for why there’s something truly unsettling beneath her exterior of super hip elder, but also why much of her manneurisms and reactions envelope the teenager inside of her that has never evolved or moved past the demons of her past. What’s important is that it doesn’t effect the attention of its audience, nor does it make this timeline transition too often to take away from the current day progression. It’s a seamless delve into the mind of a mad woman, who for better or worse, provides possible justification for what she has become, and it gives the film two compelling stories for the price of one.
– Kicking tunes. What’s so refreshingly engaging about this soundtrack and accompanying musical score, is that the collection of top 40 classic hits from the 70’s and 80’s that Blumhouse surprisingly shelled out a big amount for transcends the screen, and puts us the audience front-and-center at the heart of a party full of drunken debauchery and endless good times. Some of the featured tunes include “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, and my personal favorite for Ma’s one-of-a-kind robotic dance choreography that she gives during it, “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. As for the musical score by composer Gregory Tripi, it’s a lucid anxiety-riddled ravage of synth sounds that adds a trancing outline to the scenes of tension that sharpen with increasing volume until they are ready to cut like a knife. Music was the last thing I was expecting to compliment in a movie this focused on revenge narratives, but the inclusion of a toe-tapping tapestry of terror only increased my delight of this picture, and put me in the moment of living out these awkward moments with these young characters.
– Taylor’s presence behind the lens. This is the same guy who directed visual feasts of coloring like “The Help” and “Winter’s Bone”, but it’s really what Tate does in framing work that gives way to an artistic integrity of range, that pokes and prods the audience with efficiency. The way this guy is able to tease with mirror images on a wall, or shadows in the background of a scene that show someone’s coming, or even the way he uses flash-edited close-ups of his leading lady to garner that heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach, amplifies the tension because of calculated shot photography, and gives a stylized beat of precision for the movements of the camera that are often swift and full of pulse. For a Blumhouse produced movie, this is exceptional to say the least, and Taylor’s personality of visual storytelling masters a command over the film that would be overlooked for importance in lesser hands.
– Third act switch. What’s particularly surprising about this film is that it goes nearly 70 minutes without showing a single drop of blood, reserving itself for the moment when its impact will be heard the loudest, and boy does this ever materialize during the final twenty-five minutes of the film. To say this film matures into material that solidifies its R-rating is putting it lightly. The combination of brutal violence, shocking nudity, and devilish details mirror that of Ma’s diminishing grip over that growing voice inside of her head that she can’t escape any longer, and it made for some impressive scenes of character resolution that made me laugh and shriek in terror at the same time. Are these artistically respectable death scenes? Absolutely not, but the placement of their gore is something that infuses it that much more with attention, and will have audiences wondering frequently if they really just saw what they think they did.
– Poetic final shot. Many people will have problems with the ending of this film, for feeling anti-climatic, but to me the imagery of the fading moments from this film felt every bit as conclusively satisfying as they did honorable by Taylor to not tease an unnecessary sequel. Short, sweet, and right to the point with some poignancy to tie everything together. The work goes more into the artistic side of it rather than the reactive one, and it’s especially rare in modern day where you get a movie where the end is literally that; the end.
– Shows cards too often. This is especially heavy on the mystery and plot twist of the movie, that the revealing trailers have already done a great job of revealing prematurely. In the film itself, the movie makes a couple major mistakes on its way to selling what Ma herself is hiding, and it’s something that I was able to figure out within the opening ten minutes of this movie (No kidding) for the way a character reveal in the background makes them look like an obvious character within this movie. In addition to this, the script does nothing to dress this aspect up as something totally different than what it actually is, and it left much of the film’s second half for me a delayed relay, where the movie was catching up to me in terms of exposition that was often stilted. The meandering on random objects that easily don’t tie into the scene was also a glaring red flag for me, giving off a not so secretive vibe that something bigger was coming with this focus that came completely out of left field.
– On-the-nose dialogue. Easily the weakest aspect of the film for me, as the lines read by the younger cast completely reek of older influence trying to be hip, and instead just come off as completely unnatural line reads that feel force-fed. These created a series of unintentional laughs and groans from me that certainly didn’t lack volume in the auditorium, and did no favors to some first time starring roles that completely lacked believability or immersion into their respective roles. I could give examples, but I want this element of the film out of my head as soon as possible, for how truly gratifying it was on my precious ears.
– Rushed pacing. It’s no surprise that this film is a light, fluffy sit in terms of its minimal time commitment, but the jarring contradiction of actions from character’s between scenes rendered the continuity virtually pointless, and made for some actions of character that felt completely illogical for what they’d already been through at that point. One such example points to a negative cell phone video made by a teen within our group of protagonists, who sent it to everyone (Ma included), telling them to stay away from Ma’s, yet magically appears at that very spot in the very next scene of the movie. It’s possible that there are additional scenes missing that tie moments like this together, but I can only grade the paper that is left on my desk, and a lot of these transition scenes are disjointed to say the least.
My Grade: 7/10 of B-