In a season that has brought us Lady Bird and I, Tonya, stories about fraught, dyspeptic and sometimes-abusive relationships between parents and their offspring are at the fore of the cinematic consciousness. Mom and Dad, an anarcho-punk satire as black as a demon’s heart, is the most extreme depiction of this rift. It has something to say about the curdled ambitions and second-class citizenship of middle-class parenthood, and it says them with blunt, pitiless force. It doesn’t ask to be liked, and for most audiences, it will get its mischievous wish.
The nuclear family at its center is as obnoxious as it is familiar. There’s the father, Brent (Nicolas Cage), a military veteran who languishes zombie-like in an unfulfilling corporate job; and the mother, Kendall (Selma Blair), who tries to reverse Father Time with yoga pants and a spoken use of the word “hashtag” preceding thoughts she deems interesting. Both escape into fantasies of affairs or porn or memories of their hedonistic histories, before the arrival of their equally self-absorbed bundles of joy: Carly (Anne Winters), an impetuous, mouthy, teenager with a social-media compulsion and habit of stealing from her parents to buy drugs; and Josh (Zackary Arthur), an impressionable tyke with a mild destructive streak who, when he stumbles upon his father’s recent purchase of a handgun, thinks it’ll be a cool thing to bring to school.
The movie’s rot is accurate, its solution dystopic. All of a sudden, parents everywhere become gripped by a mass hysteria, perhaps by a chemical weapon aimed at population control, perhaps through a transmission of static on a screen. Whatever the cause, they’ll stop at nothing to kill their children by any means necessary, whether by clamoring outside schools or gazing with bloodlust, through hospital walls, at their incubating babies. Beachside retreats with children devolve, with the flip of a switch, into infanticidal bloodbaths, the local media struggling to connect the horrifying dots. Dr. Oz, in an arid cameo, likens it to “savaging,” referring to maternal pigs who slaughter their young.
Brian Taylor’s first solo feature as writer-director (he co-directed Crank and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) has some disturbing predecessors. The George Romero zombie movies, the best of which married dark humor, social satire and domestic horror, are a guiding light for any B-movie auteur bent on juggling genres. More directly, the film’s premise lifts from one of the most suspenseful scenes in Kingsman, when a mother infected by a murderous virus will stop at nothing to slaughter her infant on the other side of a tenuous bathroom door.
But the most accurate reference point is the home-invasion thriller, which Taylor brutally inverts. Instead of a family protecting their domicile from an outside threat, Taylor’s monsters live in the home, and our resourceful heroes, Carly and Josh, must overcome the tragic and cognitive dissonance of defending themselves against their lifelong protectors, armed now with electric knives, toxic gas and, in a symbolic affront that needs no underlining, a wire coat hanger.
The final hour of this short (83-minute) feature is a relentless onslaught made increasingly unpalatable by incomprehensible editing and an abrasive sound design — courtesy of the punk screeds of Reagan Youth and the aggressive techno of Mr. Bill — tempered occasionally by pointed flashbacks. One of them, from three weeks before the outbreak, carries the weight of the movie’s subtext: Brent is caught surreptitiously building a pool table in the basement, part of a proposed man cave to escape family life. Kendall confronts him, Brent takes a hammer to his impulsive purchase, and they have a frank discussion about adjusting to lives of cliché and banality, with career aspirations shelved, and passions subsumed by their kids.
In the process, for the first time in a long time, Nicolas Cage is permitted to act as opposed to just show up in a straight-to-video product no one will ever see, recite some ham-fisted dialogue and hold his weapon straight. It’s an empathetic performance when his not character is not consumed with gonzo fury; he ought to consider this acting thing more often.
If the parents in Mom and Dad aren’t resentful of their children, they envy them; hence Kendall’s middle-aged yoga partner, in bitter jealousy of her teenage daughter’s comely figure, comforting herself with the knowledge that it won’t last. It’s these wincing but honest confessionals, with their echoes of Neil LaBute or Todd Solondz’s caustic suburban autopsies, that I’ll remember most from Mom and Dad, not the protracted survivalist mayhem that devours most of the running time.
Would that such observant consideration have carried over into the movie’s unfinished ending, which leaves audiences hanging mid-sentence for the purpose of a facile irony. It tends to reduce the entire film into a one-line joke. It’s a good thing the setup fares better than the punch line.
MOM AND DAD. Director: Brian Taylor; Cast: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Brionne Davis; Distributor: Entertainment One; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at AMC Sunset Place in South Miami, and streaming across the country on VOD and digital HD