"Mama... just killed a man... and it took the whole movie..." Man, ghosts sure do know how to build things up, especially when we're talking about a film that Guillermo del Toro is involved in, even if he's just the executive producer. I don't know, maybe these ghosts are taking so long because they want to make good and sure that these people aren't smart enough to think about getting out of the blasted haunted house, which would be a good strategy and all if it wasn't for the fact that all the ghosts have to do is check to make sure that the people they're haunting are white, because even when you take black people out of the equation, I've got the feeling that white Americans are so popular with Hispanic horror filmmakers because even the Hispanics realize that a premise like this wouldn't work in their native, typically Mexican homeland, seeing as how they're jumping over the border enough as it is, without being startled by a ghost. It's a racist joke, I know, but seriously, this film is so white that it stars Jessica Chastain, and as a punk rock wannabe no less, and the Mexicans are still taking it like all of the other jobs that no one really wants to do... after we took the story idea from a Spanish short film. Huh, I guess we white people really do take too much credit, or at least we American white people do, because this is a joint Spanish-"Canadian" project, it's just that it's easy to forget that, seeing as how, hm, I don't know, [u]this film is actually set in America, specifically Virginia, of all places[/u]! Shoot, forget the Mexicans, everyone is taking our jobs, and you know what, they can have them, because according to this and most other ghost films, we're so lazy that we don't even run away from ghosts, probably because films like these are terribly popular here and kind of tire us out with boredom. I'm kidding, folks, this film isn't too shabby, but its thrills, not unlike my political correctness, are limited, and by a number of factors.
Yet another ghost story released just in time for January, a season of filler dumping, this film is about as formulaic as you would expect, but that's still not a good excuse for all of the tropes and conventions that ultimately lead back to predictability, which, to be fair, is arguably at its worst with certain attempts at thrills, that is, the age-old trope of jump scares and other assorted lapses in subtlety. Even when the scares aren't manipulative, some of the melodrama is, and that, combined with hit-or-miss dialogue, reflects flaws within Neil Cross' and Andrés and Bárbara Muschietti's script that water down the telling of a story that, really, only has so much spice to it to begin with. On top of being familiar, this film's subject matter is minimalist, and that's probably about as bad as anything I can say about this film, which has plenty to commend, but is so frequently held back by limitations within its story concept, whose meanderings are made all the more unfocused by pacing problems. When I say that this film is minimalist in concept, I mean that a 100-minute runtime is questionable, and it goes achieved partly through draggy repetition, whose excess filler distances, and whose excess material keeps momentum on a constant, steady build that, before too long, wears down on you, or at least seems to, seeing as how the atmosphere wears down on you after a while. A lot of atmosphere is pumped into Andrés Muschietti's direction, and it works more often than not, but once it outstays its welcome, it kind of dulls things down, or at least marks relative lowlights in frequent unevenness in pacing that gives you much too much time to soak up shortcomings, made all the more glaring by an overwhelming sense of ambition. This film wants to bite harder than your usual horror flick of this type and time in the year, and it does in a lot of ways, but only so much can be done with this story, and uneven pacing along a predictable path is not the way to go. Ultimately, the film is underwhelming, but it doesn't descend as far from reward value as you might think, as it hits both unexpected highlights, as well as expected and well-welcomed strengths, including aesthetic ones we've come to expect from a film that has Guillermo del Toro's name... somewhere on it.
Guillermo del Toro isn't all that involved in this project, but the more prominent folks behind this film are clearly inspired by the Latin horror legend, and that is perhaps most reflected within the visual style, anchored by a cinematographic performance by Antonio Riestra that isn't stunning, but remains thoroughly impressive, with about as much lavish emphasis on light intensity as attention to what is being illuminated, resulting in a lush bounce of color within the relatively brighter scenes, as well as a harsh handsomeness to the darker palettes that compliments the gritty tone of this meditative, almost arty thriller. Style, joined by improvable, but creative effects, breathes some life into the film's effectiveness as both one of your more aesthetically sharp early-in-year horror projects, as well as a biting psychological chiller, but the non-directorial aspect that really sells the depth of this thriller is, of all things, the acting. As strong as this cast is, it's hard to expect all that strong of acting in a film of this type, and sure, acting material is limited, but most everyone delivers, and that especially goes with certain leads, with child talents Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse nailing the animalistic anguish of youths who are brought back to the world after an early life in isolation with a disturbing force that followed them, while leading lady Jessica Chastain goes above and beyond the call of duty, capturing the role of the cool punk with a heart and regrets so effortlessly that she compensates for underdevelopment by truly becoming the Annabel Moore character, while making her portrayal all the more endearing with somewhat surprisingly intense dramatic layers that capture a sense of humanity within fear that feeds a feeling of consequence. Needless to say, we've had plenty of opportunities to get used to why Chastain has exploded onto the scene, but I was not expecting her to be so good in this film, which she carries, though not without the help of plenty of other surprisingly strong performances that bring much to subject matter that does actually have some of its own legs to stand on. Again, originality is limited, as is weight, but there is still a fair deal of meat to this minimalist story concept, whose combination of human depth and supernatural intensity establishes a potential for intrigue that is too often undercut for a very rewarding final product to be clear within view, yet done justice at times, by the aforementioned sharp artistry and acting, as well as by Andrés Muschietti, at least as director. Muschietti's direction is, of course, lacking in a lot of places, and sometimes gets carried away with what it does have, particularly when it comes to scares, whose atmospheric moments grow stale after a while, and whose jolts get to be kind of cheap at times, though not to where you can't acknowledge that, perhaps more often than not, Muschietti delivers, celebrating often chilling imagery and score work - courtesy of Fernando Velázquez - in order to set a subtly intense atmosphere, punctuated by punches that dig pinch nerves about as often as they manipulate them. Lapses in subtlety cannot be disregarded, nor can natural shortcomings being ignored in the light of shortcomings, but there is still a fair bit of bite to this effort, whose sharp style and acting, and directorial highlights, compel enough to keep the final product going, in spite of plenty of trip-ups.
In closing, formulaic storytelling and other writing shortcomings, as well as issues in subtlety and pacing, emphasize natural shortcomings to this subject matter enough for the final product to crash short of potential - limited though it may be - and into underwhelmingness, but not so deeply that handsome and effective cinematography, strong acting - which is particularly strong within the young Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, and the excellent Jessica Chastain - and effective highlights in direction aren't enough to drive Andrés Muschietti's "Mama" as a decent, if improvable psychological ghost thriller.
2.5/5 - Fair