Scalding Hot Takes #8 Mom and Dad
Here’s one of the many beautiful things about Nicolas Cage, national treasure, and also star of the National Treasure movies. Despite the decades Cage has spent in the creative wilderness, cranking out terrible, largely interchangeable thrillers and dramas at a machine-gun clip, many of them direct-to-video, the Academy-Award-winning icon has held onto that ineffable something that makes him not just great, but Nicolas fucking Cage.
He hasn’t held onto everything, of course. None of us do. He’s no longer the box-office superstar he once was, or even a man whose central presence in a movie guarantees a theatrical release. As a box-office attraction, he has undeniably faded. Academy-award winners don’t end up starring in a Left Behind reboot unless something has gone horribly awry.
Cage certainly hasn’t held onto his youth. Nor has he maintained his moody good looks. He hasn’t held on the trim waistline he possessed in his twenties and thirties. He hasn’t held onto his hair, either, which is died a shade of black not seen in nature these days in a sad, transparent attempt to distract from his rapidly dwindling hairline.
But if Cage isn’t as young, or handsome, or popular, or non-mocked as he once was, he has nevertheless held onto the core qualities that make him one of trash cinema’s true icons as well as a legitimately great actor when the mood strikes him and the role suits him.
Cage still has the raw, riveting magnetism he possessed as a skinny, weird kid. The intensity is still there. The craziness is there. The movie star charisma is still there. The dark humor and the weird lack of self-consciousness is there. Cage is still big. It’s the pictures that got small.
When Nicolas Cage has a role that allows him to be great, he’s fucking great. That’s a beautiful thing, like hearing a seemingly washed-up jazz musician pull it all together for a heartbreaking solo or an aged slugger in his twilight years hit a monster home run. Unfortunately Cage is not afforded an opportunity to be great very often.
In the past decade, for example, Cage has been dispiritingly ubiquitous but the genuinely great performances have been few and far between. When Cage let his madness and Werner Herzog’s madness bleed into each other with 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, the result was worthy of both lunatics. Though it was not universally acclaimed, I felt like 2011’s Drive Angry lived up to my expectations for a 3-D Nicolas Cage movie called Drive Angry, which is high praise indeed. It also doesn’t hurt to watch Drive Angry when you're high.
On a more highbrow note, Cage fucking brought it in a juicy lead role in David Gordon Green’s lovely, weirdly overlooked 2014 coming of age movie Joe and now I am pleased to report that Cage has roared ferociously back to life as the star of Mom and Dad, another instant cult oddity that finds Cage in a role designed to whip bad movie lovers and Cage die-hards into a frenzy of anticipation.
In Mom and Dad, Cage and an equally inspired Selma Blair commit themselves on an almost unhealthy level to playing an otherwise ordinary suburban mom and dad who go to great lengths to try to murder their two children when an unexplained supernatural phenomena inexplicably makes every parent want to murder their offspring, literally, and not just in the sense of "I could murder little Timmy when he leaves his Legos out for me to step on!"
This weird contagion reverses the natural instincts of parents. The instinctive urge to want to protect our children from danger has been corrupted into an equally irresistible instinct to destroy your our children. So one of the many inspired sick jokes in the film is that Cage and Blair’s eagerness to kill their terrified progeny is a testament to just how much they love their daughter and son. It's sweet, almost.
Mom and Dad represents the first solo outing of Brian Taylor, who won the hearts of geeks as one half of Neveldine/Taylor, the two-headed schlock monster behind films like Crank, Crank 2: High Voltage and Gamer. When Neveldine/Taylor bring an outsized comic book sensibility to gutsy action movies, the result is often enormous fun. When the duo have adapted actual video games, however, the results have been embarrassing: Jonah Hex and then Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Taylor and Cage’s first collaboration.
Neveldine/Taylor are demented geniuses at coming up with wonderfully insane ideas. They’re less consistent when it comes to realizing those crazy ideas but in Mom and Dad the execution matches the conceit. This is a nasty piece of work in the best way, an audacious shocker that doubles as a wild social satire.
Even before civilization breaks down, pitting parent against child and old against young, something is already inexorably off. There’s something unmistakably sinister about all those big, bland houses with their perfectly manicured lawns. Under his corny, joshing exterior, dad, father and suburban schmuck Brent (Cage) is filled with barely suppressed rage at the sacrifices and compromises he has had to make for the sake of family, the price he's had to pay to be Dad.
Wife Kendall (Blair), meanwhile, wrestles unhappily with the unrelenting pressure society puts upon women to remain beautiful. She wants to be young and hip and sexy but has aged irrevocably into being a mom above all else, a source of joy and satisfaction, sure, but also something that seems to have taken over her entire life and identity, that has consumed her .
In its kinetic first act, Mom and Dad captures how it doesn’t take a virus transforming everyday people into murderous psychopaths for adults to want to murder teenagers. No, the urge to want to murder teenagers for being so goddamn annoying, for having so much attitude and spending so much time on their phones doing god knows what is damn near universal. Heck, few people feel it stronger than teenagers themselves. Kids get on their parents nerves. Parents get on their kids’ nerves. It’s part of the great cycle of life but in Mom and Dad this eternal Cold War, this perpetual generational tension between us and our parents and our parents and us turns white-hot, into a feverish, all-out battle for survival.
Mom and Dad is deeply immersed in the history of horror. John Carpenter’s work casts a long shadow over it, and it’s difficult not to think of The Shining when a crazy-eyed, scenery-devouring Brent is waving around an axe and menacing his children. Then there will be two fewer impediments to him finally being able to build the man-cave of his dreams.
In its third act Mom and Dad slows the momentum to a halt and essentially takes a “time out” from suspense so that Cage and Blair can deliver monologues reflecting the soul-deep despair and dissatisfaction that was tearing them, and by extension, the family apart from the inside even before they were gripped with that unfortunate urge to murder their offspring.
The monologues are so ostentatious and actorly that I was reminded of the famous story about how Ron Shelton never thought the big “I like sunshine and lollipops and moonbeams and kissing pretty girls under the boardwalk while eating a Charleston Chew” monologue from Bull Durham (that is how it goes, right? It’s been a little while since I’ve seen it) would make it into the final cut of Bull Durham. He thought it was the kind of thing that’d get cut early and easily, since it does not move the plot forward and expects the audience to just fucking sit there for a spell while some dude rattles off seemingly the entirety of his personal philosophy. But it stayed in because it pleased audiences as well as Kevin Costner.
The same is true of Mom and Dad. I’d be tempted to say that this juicy monologue is the reason Cage agreed to star in a low-budget horror comedy like this but the truth, I reckon, is that these days all it takes to get Nicolas Cage to act in a movie is offering to compensate him financially in exchange for his services.
Cage’s ridiculous thrillers generally try to make him look younger and more physically impressive than he actually is. Mom and Dad really leans into the sad realities of the actor’s aging body. Instead of trying to mask it, the movie plays up his doughy dad bod and fading hairline and sad eyes and poorly preserved features.
In Mom and Dad, the child-murdering compulsion plays like an external ramification of Brent’s mid-life crisis and resentment towards his wife and children. It’s his violent, angry, repressed id unleashed and given free reign to express his darkest, most forbidden impulses. Every parent wants to kill their kids sometimes and every parent nurses a terrible fear that they will hurt their child, knowingly or unknowingly. As a parent I think I related to Mom and Dad on a deeper emotional level than I would have before I had kids.
I was able to appreciate subtleties, like how having a project to work on together involving their children and family brings Brent and Kendall together and gives them a shared sense of purpose, even if what brings them together is their desire to brutally murder their children for no discernible reason.
It’s a testament to me being old and lame and seeing everything through the prism of being a parent that I was a little relieved that the tension in the film slows down regularly in the third act, and while the movie is scary it’s not too scary and while it’s deliberately intense and disturbing, it won’t keep me from sleeping at night. No, my paralyzing anxiety, lifelong insomnia and crippling fear of failure do that.
It’s great to have the old Nicolas Cage we all, every last one of us, loves unconditionally back in Mom and Dad, and Taylor makes an auspicious and assured solo directorial debut. I just hope this engaged, passionate, over the top and wildly entertaining Cage sticks around, and that we don't lose him to generic direct-to-video thrillers all over again, but loving Cage means knowing that's inevitable.
Want to hear Clint and Nathan jibber-jabber about the big Mom and Dad movie? You know you do, you sick fuck, so give a listen over here and I’m sorry that I called you a sick fuck. You seem nice. I don’t know what came over me.
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