‘Ma’ Review: Exploits the Audience’s Expectations for an Entertaining Ride

Ma, directed by Tate Taylor, is the latest horror film to be released from Blumhouse studios after a string of critically and financial successes with the sequel/reboot of Halloween, Happy Death Day 2U , and Glass, to name just a few… The Tate Taylor film has taken a life on its own online, causing a substantial stir on social media in the shape of an internet meme. Ma is slowly engulfing itself into modern pop culture, whether for good or for bad it is undoubtedly getting audiences talking, but are they heading out to see it?

The story follows Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) as they settle into a new life in a quiet quaint little town. She soon finds herself striking up a friendship with a group of teenagers from her school. One day while asking for booze at the local liquor store, the group encounters Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) who after much persuasion buys the gang a box full of booze. This chance encounter slowly turns into a neurotic friendship that soon enough turns deadly and horrifying for everyone involved.

The first thing you’ll notice about Ma is that it is unequivocally not the film that those infamous trailers sold it as. Sure it’s a horror film but not in the same vein as what many are supposedly expecting. The film is more of a psychological thriller that wants to titillate rather than outright scare its audience. It’s an element that the audience will slowly appreciate contextually within the film, but also in a broader sense in the saturated genre of horror itself. Sure, anyone wanting a bloodshed feature is going to be left slightly underwhelmed and to a certain degree, I can understand such a stance. While Ma follows a rather generic conventional ride it does so with a wide grin on its face, and really goes for the absurdly entertaining route you’re probably least expecting. Ma knows exactly what it is, not in an ironic sense, but in the context of not taking itself too seriously, while still remaining grounded.

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McKaley Miller and Octavia Spencer in Ma © 2019 UNIVERSAL PICTURES

It starts off to a shaky start with a 1990s inspired credit sequence that feels derivative of any and all slasher films from that decade, most notably I Know What You Did Last Summer. The first twenty minutes, in general, don’t particularly offer much in terms of impact or intrigue. It’s quite slow, albeit, smooth sailing from the outset. You’d think it would allow for more character depth, foreshadowing, or layers, but in fact, it’s filled with nothingness. You’re led to believe there is going to be slight friction in the High School thread but the group dynamic and relationship is solidified in a matter of seconds. A possible missed opportunity, although, the film has no other choice aside to push the pacing on, trying not to get caught in the trap of being hollow and empty.

The pacing, in general, isn’t the weakest part of Ma, as the film clocks in at just under one hundred and one minutes and never feels like a slog, yet, somehow finds its time to sink its teeth into the narrative. Clearly to provoke a sense of tension and atmosphere, but even then Taylor’s film is perhaps ten minutes too long for what it’s trying to achieve. Ma is quite the departure for Taylor, whose previous exploits come in dramas Get On Up and The Help, released in 2014 and 2011, respectively. The closest feature in terms of themes that Taylor has directed would be that of the underwhelming Emily Blunt featured thriller, The Girl On the Train, released in 2016. A film that suffers from the same problems as Ma. While both films might be audacious they both, unfortunately, evoke this sense of a director being lost within the genre. It’s clear that horror isn’t Taylor’s greatest strength and at times he gets incredibly lost in his conviction of trying desperately to impress and not surprise.

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Octavia Spencer in Ma © 2019 UNIVERSAL PICTURES

The cinematography by Christina Voros doesn’t infuse any form of flavor or impact and while the image itself has this dirt lens aesthetic, it doesn’t really affect proceedings with any immersive impression. The score by composer Gregory Tripi is also deeply underwhelming. It’s non-existent at times and it isn’t exercised to any substantial degree to evoke any sense of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, Taylor’s film gets more elements right than it does wrong, but the film has no signature tone. Therefore, it has no substantial atmosphere and tension. There are moments of visual horror but nothing lives long enough in the audience’s memory, as you’ll end up finding every fault possible with why these actions take place, instead of being immersed in these acts.

The drama elements and character tension is where Taylor’s thriller shines. The relationship between Sue Ann AKA Ma and this group of kids is where the film has most of its fun. Not only for the film itself but also for the audience. The performance of Octavia Spencer, a regular for director Taylor, is that of pure undiluted fun. Spencer is having a blast at playing this enigmatic fruitcake and the results are fabulous. She steals each and every scene that she’s in with this manic sensibility and eerie persuasiveness. She’s even up against some equally as impressive talent. Juliette Lewis is underused but her on-screen daughter Maggie, played by Diana Silvers, is outstanding. She conveys this persuasive emotional decadence that is so absorbing and refreshing. Her chemistry with Lewis is terrific and feels incredibly authentic and natural. Silvers brings raw, rustic, and genuine balance to the proceedings allowing the film to substantially develop into an immersive narrative.

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Diana Silvers (left) in Ma © 2019 UNIVERSAL PICTURES

You could pick apart every little detail of Ma. On one hand, there are elements here narratively speaking that just don’t add up. Mainly regarding the titular character herself. In Ma, you’ll often question character arcs, threads, and decision making. Conventions that often plague the horror genre, and unfortunately, Ma maximizes them. Ma isn’t a bad thriller to watch, it just isn’t a good horror film, and if you go into this feature knowing the said statement, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

★★★

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