'Ma' brims with contradiction, confusion, camp, compassion, crass

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 6/2/19

One of the many tropes in horror films is that the villain is often concealed in some fashion, whether it’s their identity, their physical appearance, and/or their motivations. The scariest …

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'Ma' brims with contradiction, confusion, camp, compassion, crass

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Posted

One of the many tropes in horror films is that the villain is often concealed in some fashion, whether it’s their identity, their physical appearance, and/or their motivations. The scariest aspect to slashers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Leatherface is their masked visages coupled with inscrutable impulses, beyond generalized childhood trauma. Their compulsions remain largely unknown, forcing us to callously dissect and even blame their victims in order to derive meaning from the otherwise mindless carnage.

“Ma” takes a different approach. The antagonist is Sue Ann ‘Ma’ Ellington, played by Octavia Spencer, an unassuming veterinary tech in a small Ohio town ( filming took place in Mississippi). From the moment a group of teenagers beg Sue Ann to buy them booze from the local mini mart, we’re keenly aware that something is off with ‘Ma.’ They initially wave off Sue Ann’s eccentricities, especially after she offers her spacious basement for the local kids to carouse instead of having to dodge cops at the rock pit. Still, it’s hard to explain their collective blind eye once Sue Ann holds one teen at gunpoint and makes him strip nude, something that happens during their first visit to her house! Even after they collectively block an increasingly unhinged Sue Ann from their phones and she shoehorns her way back in using a new number, the high schoolers still show up back at Ma’s place to party hearty.

For a while, it appears that Sue Ann might be an intriguing variation on the horror villain archetype, a smiling reaper sent to punish would-be innocents for sinfully succumbing to drink, drugs, and debauchery. But the screenplay by Scotty Landes and director Tate Taylor isn’t that nostalgic or subversive. Instead, they provide Sue Ann an elaborate backstory that involves her own high school experiences with the parents of her new party pals. They include Maggie (Diana Silvers, who between this and “Booksmart” is having a busy May) and her mom, ex-cheerleader Erica (Juliette Lewis), a divorcee who attended school with Sue Ann and just moved back to town to take work as a casino cocktail waitress. Maggie has eyes for Andy, the son of Sue Ann’s erstwhile tormentor Ben (Luke Evans), a pretty skeevy person who also understandably doesn’t want Sue Ann luring his son to her house and plying him with alcohol.

However, Sue Ann’s origin story only adds layers of contradiction and confusion. The audience is meant to find schadenfreude in the revenge aspect of Sue Ann’s actions, her payback against those who subjected her to an awful, emotionally damaging prank years ago. But not only is Sue Ann’s ultimate retaliation against them wildly excessive, but any sympathy for her falls well short of her obsession over their children. It puts the audience in a schizophrenic spot, and by the time Sue Ann reaches the “Saw”-like culmination of her plan, “Ma” has utterly lost its plot and any modicum of empathy for Sue Ann is rendered moot. Moreover, there’s an obvious racial component to this landscape, referenced only indirectly during the film’s denouement, that is criminally unexplored.

It’s a tribute to Spencer’s acting ability that she manages to navigate this rollercoaster role without losing face. Spencer maintains a simmering manic undercurrent that’s the closest thing this film has to a narrative throughline. But even that’s not enough to stitch together the disparate parts of this Frankenstein's monster of a film that’s torn between camp, compassion, and crass.

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