The refrain of “I’ll kill you” or “My mom (dad) is gonna kill me” are a familiar part contemporary familiar discourse in even the most loving of homes. Writer/director Brian Taylor has taken that commonplace and spun a tale that is both wickedly twisted and unnervingly satisfying. The exactly proportions of those two feelings may say more about the viewer than it does about Taylor’s film, MOM AND DAD, but it detracts not a whit from the pleasure of watching this story of nuclear families blowing up.
We open with another normal day in the life of the upper middle-class Ryan family. Their house is spacious. The cleaning is done by a maid and her daughter. This leaves time for mom Kendall (Selma Blair) to fight with daughter Kendall (Anne Winters) about the latter’s life choices. Dad Brent (Cage) uses the time to joke around with adorable pre-teen son Josh (Zackary Arthur) and registering disapproval of Carly’s boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham). At one point, the topic becomes how much better everyone would be if they had never had children, meant as a joke, of course, before the subject becomes general complaints about the impending visit that evening by Brent’s difficult parents. The television reports a woman parking on railroad tracks and leaving her child inside to be smashed by the oncoming train. Tsks tsks all around before returning to breakfast. It is odd, though, that dad emphasizes how important it is to obey mom by squeezing a LOT of ketchup onto the counter.
These are affluent lives of quiet desperation that are about to get much more desperate for the kids, and for the parents, a sort of epiphany. Flippancy and eye-rolling by Carly and her best palwhen dealing with authority at school is interrupted by parents picking their kids up early. Then the kids being locked inside with a horde of parents snarling outside. It’s a slow reveal that gives way to a robust mayhem, which, oddly, brings Kendall and Brent closer together as they banter with normal affect through their machinations to exterminate Carly and Josh, a calm that makes what they do with kitchen tools and a garden hose all the more maniacal. Before we get there, though, there is Kendall’s sister giving birth at the worst possible moment, Damon proving that he is not only a stand-up guy, but also a fast-healing one, and the most disturbing kitchen-mopping sequence in recent cinematic history, during which the juxtaposition of normality and waiting to have our worst suspicions confirmed is perfectly, ahem, executed.
The humor dry, the style arch, the visuals pointed, and the tension hyperbolic, but the undercurrent of ennui and angst at the core of the story anchors the action in the zeitgeist without becoming didactic. When Kendall desperately competes with social media for the attention of Carly, the simmering resentment is a familiar trope, but there is something deeper going on with her. When dad, Brent (Cage) tickles Josh, it’s more than just Cage’s usual hint o’ creepiness that give one pause about how aggressive he is being. Television news reports about the wave of unrepentant parents doing away with their offspring with no explanation offer only speculation and Dr. Oz noting that this sometimes happens with pigs, but the hardness on Kendall’s face as she kvetches to her best friend about Carly, Brent’s wistful memory of his wild youth seen in flashback contrasting with his woebegone present, suggests another theory. Has the collective consciousness has reached a breaking point of some sort? One of the best things about the film, aside from the sight of Nicolas Cage destroying a pool table with all but his bare hands, is that we are left to ponder just what made seemingly normal parents start killing their children. Violently. And with a grim determination that is far more unsettling than the baseball bats and flailing wire coat-hangers involved. That the latter might be a puckish nod to MOMMIE DEAREST is yet another guilty pleasure to be found in this wicked black comedy.
MOM AND DAD is a clever conceit, done with panache and the keen understanding that what is not said, and not seen, will haunt your nightmares far longer more effectively than egregious exposition and mere gore.