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Film Review: Ma

Ma (2019)
Universal Pictures

Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans

You have to hand it to Blumhouse, as they seem to have found a formula for medium budget scary movies that make a pile at the box office, and Ma, from director Tate Taylor is no exception. They have also managed to get Olivia Spencer in the lead, playing Ma herself, a lonely middle aged woman that offers the local cast offs from Riverdale a basement where they can party with alcohol. Strange that the local store never once wonders what she is dong with all that booze she’s suddenly buying.I know that sounds petty, but it’s those kind of details that constantly pull me out of this picture and makes me do my “That would never happen face” to Mrs Reviewer, who then elbows me.

You see Ma is a typical Blumhouse film, a scary premise, that just can’t make it to a satisfactory third act, and it’s a shame because there are some great set pieces here, but as a whole the actual presentation is deeply flawed. I think the main faults lie with the script and the pacing. Spencer is great as our unhinged lead, and she flips from friendly older procurer of illegal booze, to psycho stalker with violent tendencies, in a heartbeat. The younger cast members do their best and to be fair they are given very little back story to work with, but it did feel in certain scenes that the writers were trying their best to make them sound hip and trendy, but even at my age it often felt flat, false and cliched.

So the problems in the screenplay come fairly early. Once the premise is set up and we see the local Archie gang partying in Ma’s basement, it’s not long before we see Ma start acting like a maniac, pointing guns at her guests and getting them to get their kit off. Now call me alarmist, but at that point I’m getting my friends the hell out of there, but Ma reveals it’s a joke and the party moves on. However, the audience now know all is not well, and the director begins to sneak a couple of flashbacks into the action that pretty much spoils the whole film. I knew right away what was actually going on, really early on, and I think a lot of other folk did too.

As things get a little crazier, and Ma’s stalker like behavior accelerates, it seems that the the whole production was running on empty with no real place to go to. The second act crawls along, but it’s because it’s becoming increasingly more obvious what her motivations are, and by that time you really just want to skip to the end. However, by the time we get there, it’s too late for any real revelation, as we have been spoon fed everything along the way and there’s no surprises left. Instead the violence and shocks are turned up to 11, to keep the audience interested, but it comes across as an obvious tactic that feels exploitative now.

I feel that there was a real chance to do something quite uncomfortably scary with Ma, but the writers and directors didn’t trust themselves so just went all out to shock rather than to slowly build up a story filled with dread. Better pacing and a tighter control on the story could have built the suspense right to the last reel, and more subtle use of foreshadowing could have dropped more nuanced clues for eagle eyed viewers to pick up on, instead of bashing us over the head with the back story, leaving us with nowhere to go.

Frustrating and annoying, Ma wraps up it’s tale with the usual thriller tropes, and it’s a shame as there was perhaps a clever story to be told here. Instead Ma’s weird behaviour goes unnoticed despite every kid in the town disappearing in an evening and getting rat faced, even on a school night. And the kids themselves are the best behaved bunch of junior alcoholics you have ever seen, dancing to Funky Town by Lipps Inc like it’s Club 54, and not one of them posting on social media that they are having the time of their lives at Ma’s house, even though occasionally she may threaten or stalk you. Icing on the cake? Another trailer that reveals scenes from the final act in it’s publicity. Reprehensible and anger inducing.

A wasted chance, but with a $5m budget and a weekend take of $21m, nobody cares about the inconsistencies in story telling. For Blumhouse it’s another jackpot.