Brian Taylor is one half of the twisted writing-directing duo that brought us Crank, Crank: High Voltage, and Gamer. He’s created menageries of madness including Jason Statham hooking a car battery to his tongue and Michael C. Hall bursting into a demented song and dance number with the help of brainwashing. Now, with his first effort sans Mark Neveldine, Taylor has wrangled Selma Blair and Nic Cage to play murderous parents in Mom and Dad. You better believe Pajiba was there to witness this surely outrageous black comedy at its US Premiere in Fantastic Fest’s midnight slate.
Happily nestled in a big, warmly decorated house on a cozy suburban street, the Ryan family seems perfectly happy. Sure, there’s some tension between parents Brent (Cage) and Kendall (Blair), because he misses the freedom of his wild youth, and she misses the career she gave up to raise their kids. And yes, their teen daughter Carly (Anne Winters) is proving to be a handful as she’s obsessed with her phone and the painfully dismissive catchphrase, “whatever.” And obviously, little brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) can be a bit of a pest, leaving trippable toys around and nesting ailing animals in his dad’s prized sports car. But every family has their frustrations. It’s not like they’ll bubble over into fights or violence. That is until an eerie signal flashes across TV screens, transforming every parent in this once quiet town into a rampaging maniac dedicated to murdering their children.
Don’t ask why. Taylor doesn’t bother with an origin for this signal or any attempt at movie science as to how it works. It’s enough that you know the black and white static and that droning sound is what incites fathers to wield baseball bats at their children, and newly minted moms to attempt to smother their newborns.
Taylor brews tension, showing silent parents staring intently outside classroom windows and school gates, waiting for their kids to come close enough to clutch and kill. It’s not a signal heard by every parent at once, so while the Ryan children witness classmates and friends being murdered, their mother has been reluctantly exercising, their father napping in his office. But we know it’s just a matter of time.
As Kendall rushes to the hospital because her sister’s baby is finally coming, there’s a deranged anticipation. But weirdly, Taylor—a filmmaker who’s made his name on going totally over the top—pulls his punches when it comes to child killing. Sure, death and brutal violence is implied by bloody keys held in white-knuckled soccer mom fists, a viscera-caked bat propped over a dad’s shoulder, a raised mallet with an unaware little girl under its shadow. But in the post-screening Q&A Taylor admitted he didn’t know where to draw the line on what can be shown. So he opted for very little.
Sure, showing kids being killed in a gonzo exploitation scenario would have been sick, possibly scandalous. But coming in the wake of IT’s success, probably not. And with this premise, it’s a promise made to the audience, isn’t it? I admit, I cringed when I saw the parents at the gate, anxious over what gore and carnage might be shown. But as one parent after another exits frame before any violence happens, Mom and Dad becomes increasingly dull.
To make matters worse, Taylor gums up the tension of the Ryan family’s story with a smattering of interruptive flashbacks that answer questions you never would have asked. Like why is Kendall staring sadly at a business card? She had a meeting with her old boss, who laughed at her request to come back to work after a 15-year hiatus. Why is the basement littered with broken wood and a sledgehammer? Brent built his own pool table then destroyed it when is wife dared to ask him how much it cost. Get it? The Ryans aren’t as happy as they seem. This is the simple and predictable point nearly every flashback makes, laboriously. It leaves you tapping your fingers waiting for the fucked up fun to resume.
Credit to Blair and Cage, they bring the fucked up fun. As Kendall, Blair manages to quickly craft a character we can empathize with before her resentments explode into outright homicidal lust. And there, she’s cool, calculating, and darkly amusing. Cage—on the other hand—does what Cage does. As a friendly dad, he’s a goofy cartoon. As an angry husband, he’s a loon, singing “hokey pokey” with a bizarre but thrilling menace. As a murderous parent, he’s too too much, and it’s perfect whether he’s ruthlessly chasing down his young son, or getting snarled in an explosive booby-trap. Then the finale boasts a sensational cameo from Lance Henricksen, which is teased in the opening. But the movie runs out of steam, limping to a lackluster conclusion that’ll have audiences going, “Huh.”
In the end, Mom and Dad offers pockets of irreverent fun, some sprinklings of gore, and enough crazy Cage antics to make it worth a late night watch. But feckless flashbacks bloat it to over 2 hours, and Taylor’s fear to really run with his concept keeps this from being anywhere near as bonkers as his past efforts. Like, I’d never thought I’d call a Brian Taylor movie “surprisingly tame”. And yet here we are.