Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “If I were hanged on the highest hill, mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine, I know whose love would follow me still, mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!” Which is all well and good. Unfortunately for the family of Natalie ‘Ma’ Koffin in Darren Bousman’s ‘Mother’s Day’, there is every chance that it would have been their mother that put them in a position where they were likely to be hanged (or lynched, beaten or imprisoned) in the first place. Because despite the strength of feeling that Natalie undoubtedly has for her brood, she is clearly one sick and misguided individual, an ice cold yet often charming matriarch who wields her psychotic offspring like the proverbial steel fist in her velvet glove.
‘Mother’s Day’ is a brutal, cruel, sometimes thrilling, often frustrating film that illustrates the dangers of buying a house at auction and not checking who lived in it prior to you. Daniel and Beth (Frank Grillo & Jaime King) are a couple hosting an evening of drinks and all round larks for a smug group of friends in the converted basement of their new abode. However, they are unaware that upstairs a trio of ne’er do wells on the run from the police have just made themselves at home in the mistaken belief that they are, well, at home. Realising that the house is no longer inhabited by their mother and sister and in desperate need of medical assistance for their brother who has been shot in the escape, the crooks take the occupants hostage before calling in their mother to help them get out of this mess. Thing is, Ma finds out that the large sums of money sent to her at this address by her boys is nowhere to be found and she is not going to leave without it. So begins a game of psychological and physical torment in which the stakes are continually raised until it becomes apparent that considerably fewer people are going to be walking away from this house party than arrived.
Rebecca De Mornay leads a cast who are all thoroughly convincing (even if the script isn’t always) and her portrayal of the Koffin family matriarch deserves credit for resisting the temptation to go overboard with a character that could very easily have ended up as a shrieking, maniacal caricature. She manages to exude a believable sense of some sort of love and adoration for her children and combine it with an utter ruthlessness when it comes to getting what she wants from the family’s captives. Throw in some subtle hints at a very messed up approach to motherhood (particularly in moments when her icy calm cracks) and you have an interesting and suitably rounded villainess who manages to dominate every scene she’s in. As the sons who carry out her bidding, Warren Cole and Patrick John Fleuger play suitably repugnant individuals, both of whom seem to lack the slightest hint of empathy for their victims. While this works as a way of ensuring that the necessary levels of threat and jeopardy are maintained throughout the movie, they are less interesting for it, at least in comparison to their sister (True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll) in whom there are clearly some very real issues of conflict at work (However, it’s one of the films failings that this sub plot is never really worked through and lacks any sort of satisfactory resolution).
Aside from the uniformly excellent performances, this is a film that is at its most convincing when exploring the psychological dimensions of this home invasion scenario, as mother Koffin slyly undermines the ties that bind the group of friends and tests the limits of their loyalty to each other, all the while uncovering some of the secrets and heartache that exist among them. Some of this is exceptionally cruel with, for example, two men being forced to fight to ensure that it’s not their wife who will be taken upstairs and forced to have sex with one of the Koffin boys, or when Daniel is forced to watch Ma Koffin burn photos of his dead son until he reveals the location of the hidden money.
However, in its latter stages the movie falls into the trap of dispensing with most of these elements and instead employs a variety of horror movie clichés that lessens the emotional impact of much of what has gone on before. So we see villains being knocked unconscious with blows that would kill any normal human being, only to make miraculous recoveries seconds later in order to continue their pursuit of the good guys. We also have some silly dialogue between Beth and Ma Koffin as they duke it out woman to woman, exchanging barbs and insults that really have no place in fight scenes unless it’s during a fencing dual between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. The film also features a policeman who, although fairly quick on the uptake, doesn’t seem able to combine this knowledge with even the most basic levels of police training when danger is imminent. His behaviour in particular may have you shaking your head in disbelief. It’s sloppy characterisation and exists purely to allow the plot to progress from A to B with little regard for how a police officer would actually act in any of the situations depicted. And the scene where a dying man, with seemingly only minutes to live, recovers sufficiently to become interested in a woman who is being forced by his mother to do a lap dance for him really is pushing credulity to the limit.
But my main complaint about Mother’s Day is the overly contrived ending that exists purely to create a narrative loop with the film’s prologue and provide the requisite downbeat conclusion that seems to be de rigueur for most horror films these days. It left me extremely puzzled and full of questions such as “But wasn’t he supposed to be…?” and “But how could she have managed to…?”. Basically, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
All of which is unfortunate because ‘Mother’s Day’ has a lot going for it. When it explores character, situation and relationships it is quite compelling but once these aspects are jettisoned and we get into the chasing, fighting and hiding sequences it becomes like so much standard clichéd Hollywood fare. Still, it’s worth a look and does work better as a thriller than a horror film, although the often severe levels of brutality may be a bit much for some people who would go to see it on that basis. And fair play to De Mornay who, despite maintaining a relatively low profile in recent years proves that when it comes to playing female psychos, nobody does it better.
Very much a film of two halves for me this one and as it progressed I did find myself becoming increasingly irritated by many of the character’s actions. But the acting is superb and it is at times incredibly tense stuff. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t resist the urge to embrace some very tired thriller conventions and that the script couldn’t always match the strength of the performances.