Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriters: Tate Taylor, Scotty Landes
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis
Ma isn’t much different from a film like The Roommate or The Stepfather. It’s about a seemingly ordinary person who is actually a violent murderer, with a teenage(ish) protagonist who is wary of the murderer’s apparent normality. The trailers make it very clear what’s happening in the film, so any audience member who saw them went in with an idea of what to expect. By the same token, the film features very little mystery, following the typical beats of a movie of this sort: introduce plucky protagonist; introduce antagonist; show a small scene to raise suspicion in the protagonist ahead of their solo investigation; violence; climax.
Ma’s only unique stance, on the page at least, comes in the decision of those at the helm to offer this fairly standard horror script a humanized antagonist. According to an IndieWire interview with director Tate Taylor and star Octavia Spencer, the original story offered very little by way of sympathy for the chief antagonist Spencer portrayed, the decision of Taylor and company to add an empathetic element to the character making Ma more a story of trauma and, in the director’s words, “the sins of our parents”, than your token, often repeated, horror movie.
It is, however, clear that this is all that Taylor changed; the film’s final cut is replete with dialogue and plot contrivances that don’t belong outside of a first draft, with one particular instance of side character Chaz (Gianni Paolo), the “stupid jock” kid, asking Ma (Spencer), “don’t wants to be cool?” after recommending changes to her (now) party basement like ‘moving a couch’, ‘getting cool lights’, ‘maybe adding a TV’, being a particular low. Maybe Chaz is a manipulative person, or maybe he “negs women”, but there isn’t enough Chaz in the film to make a solid determination outside of this scene. There is a possibility to see this line as a contrivance to draw a parallel between Chaz and the people that victimized Ma in high school, and definitely to make thematic allusions and create the action that follows, but if we are supposed to identify with the victims of the action occurring on screen, characters should act in a reasonable and rational way that couldn’t arguably justify retribution for said action. Now I don’t think the proceeding action is justified, however Chaz’s monologue opens the door to a moralizing argument that wouldn’t exist if a different character had said something more innocuous like, “it would be cool if you had x, y, z” and Ma acted irrationally, thus creating fear because rationality does not prevent horror.
Ma responds to Chaz’s question by showing him something she thinks is pretty cool; a Chekhovian revolver.
Now, the mere action of the person you have never met (who has also broken the law to buy you and your underage friends booze, then lured you to their basement) pulling out a gun should be enough to cause any rational person a fair degree of fear. But then Ma makes Chaz, who is a minor, to strip naked, and he does so under the implicit threat of violence. Naturally, we should expect our protagonists to immediately leave, but they don’t, instead having a laugh at poor Chaz and asking Ma for pizza rolls before sparking up a blunt or two. It’s a moment that illustrates the movie’s issues with encouraging a suspension of disbelief, and almost undermines the attempts within the script to encourage an understanding of the teenagers’ actions which ultimately incubate the vicious antagonist’s psychosis. The first and second acts of Ma are filled with clunkiness like this.
The film is ultimately saved by the performances. Spencer, Missi Pyle, Lewis and Miller stood out as the most convincing and consistently entertaining. Stupid dialogue and actions are treated seriously, which is like a bandage on a deep cut; it doesn’t completely solve the problem, but it’s better than nothing. Spencer is particularly engaging, and she does her utmost to sell the absurdity. Her character’s actions make some sense based on her past and Spencer latches to this, even if they are ridiculous – she has trauma she hasn’t dealt with and she takes it out on her abusers, but also on their children and/or stereotype’s contemporary analogue; she wants to protect her daughter (Tanyell Waivers) from the evil of the world, etc. Mostly, she wants to be loved and accepted like anyone else, and Spencer’s rich history as a positive on-screen presence through whom we often emphasise truly enhanced this aspect of the character, delivering on the promises Spencer and Taylor had promised when rewriting the script. It’s tragic, and Spencer brought that pitiful person to the forefront while also bringing the crazy when needed. The best scene is when Ma buys a group of kids booze, and they laugh at her and egg her car. We’re watching a character commit a crime, potentially to the ends of harming themselves, yet it’s profoundly depressing and empathy-inducing. It wouldn’t be so without Spencer and the work of Tate Taylor.
Ma is worth watching primarily for Octavia Spencer. Both she and the director were able to take a film that otherwise would have lacked creativity, intrigue, individuality or common sense, and make it a horror that stands out amongst a vast sea of similar films. If you like horror/thriller movies, check out Ma. You could do much worse.