When I saw the trailer for MOM AND DAD a few months back, I was really interested to see it for one reason: this was a movie about mass hysteria that caused parents to kill their children, and the dad of the title was Nicolas Cage. Goddamn if that wasn’t a perfect storm of insane chaos. Watching it on Hulu, I found many reasons beyond that to love Brian Taylor’s wicked black comedy. Cage with a sledgehammer is the main event, but there’s a lot more bubbling under the movie to make its nutzoid energy pay off in both terrifying and humorous ways.
MOM AND DAD let me know where it’s going right from the opening shot. A mother with an infant in a car seat parks her car on train tracks. Stepping out, she walks away from the vehicle. A speeding train hurls itself at the car. I never see the train hit the car. I don’t need to in order to understand that mother just killed her infant child. This is the opening freaking scene of the movie! I asked myself, When a movie goes this far bonkers before even establishing the main cast, where the Hell can it go from here?
The film then introduces the main players. Mother Kendall has very little control over her family, and her life. Dad Brent is burnt out from a dead end job and family obligations that hold him back from embracing his inner wild child. Daughter Carly is a whiny, self-centered sophomore who has no moral scruples about stealing money for drugs from Kendall’s purse. Son Josh is just rambunctious enough to push Dad’s limits without trying. We meet them at a family breakfast that announces an undercurrent of nervous energy that will hum along until things explode.
Taylor’s script layers in details and characters that will come to fruition much later in the film. There’s the Chinese house cleaner and her daughter; Kendall’s sister is going to give birth; and Brent’s parents are coming over for dinner tonight. All this seems everyday enough, but for the strange happenings with parents and their kids. As Carly’s boyfriend Damon takes the SAT, parents press themselves against the glass (a visual reference to George Romero’s zombies trying to get into the mall in DAWN OF THE DEAD). Outside, hundreds of parents gather at the school gates, calling for their children, whom the school staff and authorities try to hold back. One kid makes a break, hops the fence, and immediately gets pummeled by his own mom. A melee breaks out as the parents hop the gates, with kids fleeing wildly from attacking parents. Some of those parents catch their kids, and it gets violent and brutal when they do.
These scenes are terrifying, and that’s coming from a guy who doesn’t scare easy. We’ll later find out through news broadcasts that parents nationwide have turned suddenly to murdering their children. It’s like one of those 70’s nature gone awry flicks, where the animals try to kill mankind. Only the animals in this case are mom and dad. This inverts the natural order; parents would normally die to defend their kids. Not so now. Taylor comments on the phenomena in a classroom discussion about “planned obsolescence,” describing how iPhones have a predetermined lifespan so people will buy new iPhones. But unlike cell phones, parents are rebelling against the social order. They won’t go quietly. Instead, they’ll fight back.
That’s the macro view. There’s also the micro view thru the lens of Kendall and Brent’s family. Selma Blair is sadly brilliant as a worn down mother who feels she’s lost control and has nothing of her own to live for. She’s not only protective of her own kids, sometimes when they don’t deserve it, but also to her new niece in a scene where her sister’s child birth goes sideways. She’s broken, which makes the character more interesting once she gets home to her kids and the switch flips. Blair’s a competent vet, and I’ve never seen her put this kind of range into a role. When she picks up a Sawzall and says, “It saws ALL,” the transformation is complete and wonderful.
X Marks the Oscar: Yep that’s the same Nic Cage who won an Oscar for LEAVING LAS VEGAS. And sadly didn’t for VAMPIRE’S KISS.
As for Brent, there could never be a better venue for the “Nic Cage goes crazy in a movie” act. There’s a flashback in the third act, when Cage acknowledges midlife crisis by building a pool table and establishing a man cave. When Kendall mentions he doesn’t even like playing pool and questions how they can afford it, Cage picks up a sledgehammer. We get a full payoff as Cage smashes the pool table to pieces, bringing down the sledge over and over again as he screams about how terrible his life is. This is the most glorious Nic Cage rant since VAMPIRE’S KISS, far surpassing his “NOT THE BEES!” in the remake of THE WICKER MAN. He’s amped up and crazy from here on out, which is particularly delicious when Lance Henriksen enters the scene as his dad. One of the few faults in the film is that Taylor lets Cage disappear offscreen for a large chunk of the first 25 minutes or so. His crazed energy is perfectly suited for Taylor’s kinetic approach to filmmaking, and more Cage would have only enhanced MOM AND DAD.
The last part of the sledgehammer scene is key to what underlies the film. His energy spent, Brent slumps down next to Kendall and bemoans what his life has become. He had dreams once, and they’ve gone by the wayside. Kendall chimes in that she had her own dreams, which too have sunk into the ether. Earlier in the film, when Kendall was driving Carly to school, she tried to impress her daughter in the fulfillment and joy in being part of a family. This turns out to be a sham, as Kendall doesn’t buy in at all. They were once Brent and Kendall. Now they’re mom and dad. Their planned obsolescence went into effect years ago, and they’re suffering for it.
All I’ve written so far makes MOM AND DAD sound dark, and admittedly the film isn’t afraid to go to some very dark places. But first and foremost, MOM AND DAD is a black comedy. I couldn’t possibly miss this when one crazy scene is scored to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” (the soundtrack is killer, and also includes Erasure’s “Chains of Love”). Or when Carly’s boyfriend tells her, “I used to think my parents getting divorced was the hugest tragedy of my life, but ironically, that shit doubled my chance of survival.” Watching Henriksen with knife in hand chase Cage in attempt to kill him, as Cage chases his son in attempt to kill him manages to be scary and hilarious at the same time. Vet cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who lensed TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (and a Roxette video!), does a great job of catching Taylor’s frenetic energy in a bottle and using it in a way that heightening the horror, which then turns up the wicked sense of humor behind MOM AND DAD.
When I reviewed Mark Neveldine’s THE VATICAN TAPES, I complained about how the crazed verve he and Taylor used in their joint directing gigs was all but missing. Taylor sticks loudly and clearly to his bread and butter with MOM AND DAD, the perfect film for Nicolas Cage to go bonkers with a sledgehammer, but so much more than that. It’s high level black comedy that will bite, and terrify you with where it suggests parenting could go if the world went sideways. As much as I love Cage’s performance, I pray my dad isn’t anywhere near a sledge the next time I visit him.