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‘Mom and Dad’ Review: Nicolas Cage Goes Nuts in Cartoonish Zombie Thriller — TIFF

The "Crank" co-director is back with another wacky, boundary-pushing cinematic experience.

“Mom and Dad”

If “Night of the Living Dead” and “Spun” had a demented lovechild, it would look something like Brian Taylor’s “Mom and Dad.” While that’s all the better us, the actual kid would be getting a real bum deal.  Unfortunately for that demented lovechild, if born into Taylor’s twisted world, it would soon find its two beloved parents fighting tooth and nail to kill it.

Marking his first effort as solo writer-director, Taylor has lost none of the tweaked-out, live-wire intensity he brought to his work with collaborator Mark Neveldine. “Mom and Dad” has the same depraved verve, sick humor and berserk pulse of the “Crank” series, and what’s more, marries all that to an operatic Nicolas Cage performance in full on nutzoid mode. But more than the fervid cartoon violence and Cage’s rococo line readings, the film’s greatest asset lies in its simple, cold-blooded premise: Your parents took you into this world, and now, filled with single-minded murderous intent, they’re going to take you out.

Not quite a zombie film, “Mom and Dad” nevertheless plays with many of the codes and expectations of the genre. The unexplained pandemic that causes parents to kill comes on without warning, all at once and unavoidable. In keeping with the best zombie narratives, Taylor makes clear that this happening on a large societal scale while still tethering the point of view to a few specific characters. But he twists the conventions to suit his own needs as well, most prominently in the fact that apart from developing intra-generational bloodline bloodlust, the “infected” party remains otherwise unchanged. And so he plays on that potent zombie twist where those closest to you are all of a sudden terrifying mortal dangers, while at the same time allowing those mortal dangers to remain verbose and witty and compelling narrative agents all by themselves.

All of them are members of the Ryan family. On the kid front, there’s troublemaking 10-year-old Josh (Zackary Arthur) and rebellious teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters). They’re up against Mom and Dad, in this case middle-aged malcontents Kendall and Brent (Selma Blair and Nicolas Cage, respectively). And before things devolve into tense games of cat-and-mouse between the parents and children, the plot traces the roots of the elders’ mid-life malaise. For Brent, it’s all about getting old and the physical decline that comes with that (in one of his many lamentations, the actor delivers words “cottage-cheese ass” as only he could). For Kendall, it’s the double-insult of having given up her career for her children and them not even giving a hoot.

Though Taylor takes pains to contextualize the subsequent murderous mayhem within a larger theme of the generational anxiety — going so far as to sit in with Carly’s high school class as they learn about built-in obsolescence — he does so tongue firmly in cheek (see the line: “cottage-cheese ass”). Taylor knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making here, and from the opening forward — which begins with suburban mom parking her minivan in front of an rapidly approaching train and then launches into ‘70s exploitation style title sequence — so does the viewer.

Where other works might take a few minutes to warm the gears, “Mom and Dad” follows a bugged-out pace from the get-go. Taylor stages an ostensibly ordinary family breakfast as an over-the-top cacophony of radically different shots and perspectives, stitched together with active malice for continuity editing and the 180˚ rule. As the perspectives ping around the room, so does the sound, creating a demented, disorienting effect even in an early moment that’s only there to set the scene and introduce the characters. You can only imagine how the tweaker style evolves as the narrative moves into more extreme terrain – you know, the once Cage starts running around with a sledgehammer and Winters tries to flee Blair’s murderous designs.

Though the film gives equal footing to lead actresses Winters and Blair, it really is the Nicolas Cage show, and that’s a conscience choice on all parts. Though the actor only gives a supporting turn, his idiosyncratic performative style feels grafted into the DNA of the film. Whereas something like “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” was a more conventionally made canvas for the actor’s grandiloquent extremes, “Mom and Dad” is shot, edited, and paced with all of the odd cadences and sudden, volatile swings that characterize the typical gonzo-Cagian role. It’s as if the film keeps on acting as Cage even when he’s off-screen.

As you can imagine, it makes for a work that can veer between exhilarating and exhausting, but you just know that Taylor and crew wouldn’t have it any other way.

Grade: B

“Mom and Dad” premiered in the Midnight Madness section of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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