The Good Mother
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Writers: Madison Harrison, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte
Director: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte
It’s pretty easy to write a rave review of a film that has moved you, or delighted you, or challenged you in some marvelously unexpected way. Even easier is detonating a napalm-laden nuke over a movie that utterly fails in every way, be it through petty incompetence or first-degree indifference.
But then there are films like The Good Mother, a glum drama about a depressingly widowed, stiflingly alcoholic newspaper reporter (Hilary Swank) trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the gangland-style murder of her drug-addled son.
It’s the kind of film that, despite its solid looks and sturdy performances, barely registers an emotional ripple. As a movie, The Good Mother is far from good, equally distant from bad, and thus not even middlingly memorable. It just is.
It’s clear director/co-writer Miles Joris-Peyrafitte aspired to layer a gritty, edge-of-the-seat thriller set on the mean streets of Albany, New York (!) atop a psychological portrait of a profoundly damaged woman while deftly navigating a maze of out-of-nowhere twists and how-can-that-be turns.
Instead, the story unfolds with all the passion of a police blotter report.
At the outset, we find newspaper reporter Marissa (Swank) sulking around the newsroom of the Albany Times-Union (an actual paper), not-so-surreptitiously slipping booze into her coffee and barking at the young fellow staffers who have as little use for her as she does for them.
Apparently, Marissa’s the type of mid-size city newspaper writer who gets to hang out at her desk waiting for the phone to ring with her next big scoop, which is to say she’s the type of mid-size city newspaper writer that went extinct 30 years ago.
“You’re my best writer,” her hardcore editor (Norm Lewis) tells her. We have to take his word for it, because Marissa doesn’t seem to write a whole lot.
Which, come to think of it, may be emblematic of the problem at the heart of The Good Mother: The script tells us a lot of stuff without inviting us to actually experience it.
Case in point: Marissa learns about her son’s murder during an editorial meeting, when her other son, a straight-laced Albany police officer (Jack Reynor), bursts in to give her the bad news. It could have been a powerful scene that evoked the complicated relationship among the mom and her two radically different young men, but the film instead lets the whole thing play out silently, through a window. It’s a ploy that allows Swank to show us how nicely she can wordlessly transition from incomprehension to grief-y-ness, but it does nothing to illuminate the character she’s playing.
Likewise, Marissa’s prolific drinking is reportedly due to the recent death of her beloved husband. Fair enough, but “I’m sad, therefore I am now a barely functioning alcoholic” seems a bit pat. Surely, there are other layers to her dysfunction that can be economically addressed. As it is, Swank does little more than wear Marissa’s alcoholism like the rumpled clothes that hang off her emaciated body.
Then there’s the dead son’s very pregnant girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) whose chief talent seems to be stupidly blundering into hot zones: e.g., a suspected killer’s walk-up slum apartment and, later, the basement of a guy who might well be a deadly drug dealer. In the movies, idiocy like that usually results in the audience throwing up its hands and sighing, “Well, let’s just allow Darwin to sort this out.”
The Good Mother’s “Don’t worry your pretty little head about the details” attitude ruins even the film’s main plot twist, which could have been nifty if there had been even a whisper of pre-shadowing. Instead, it lands like an errant asteroid.
Even worse: At the film’s final blackout, we learn that despite everything that’s happened, everyone here may well go on living the same lies, enduring the same emotional tortures that they had when we met them in the first place.
There’s no right way to feel after experiencing the roller coaster of a crime thriller. But there is one, and perhaps only one, decidedly wrong way, and that is: “Eh.”
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now