The following post contains spoilers for the movie Mom and Dad.
A movie title like Mom and Dad doesn’t give the viewer much to go on. Is this movie a twee comedy premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week and starring popular comedians giving surprisingly earnest performances? Is it a fourth movie in the Meet the Parents franchise that no one asked for? Or is it an out-of-its-mind Crazies-esque thriller comedy from the co-director of Crank in which parents all over the world set out to kill their own children? Surprise! It’s the third option, and at an efficient 83 minutes, Brian Taylor’s first solo directorial effort wastes no time on its mission to shock viewers into a state of submission as its stars, Selma Blair and Nicolas Cage, try to hunt down their kids and reckon with the resentment they’ve built up watching youth be wasted on the young.
If you’re onboard with the plot, Taylor (better known to this point as half of the directing duo Neveldine & Taylor, who brought you both Crank movies and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) has the twisted sense of humor to wake you up with a primal scream in this quiet cinematic season. Mom and Dad starts with a normal day in the life of Brent (Cage) and Kendall Ryan (Blair). He’s the slightly checked-out, good-cop dad who clearly sees work as an excuse to get away from the house, and she’s the mildly depressed, always-on-duty mom who starts her day with yoga, green juice, and maybe some white wine with a pain-pill chaser when no one is looking. Their teen daughter just wants to be left alone, and their little boy is still young enough to love his mommy and daddy very much. The Ryans are a picture of suburban banality, until one day when Mom and Dad snap and — along with seemingly every other parent on Earth — set out to murder their progeny.
Thus we are launched into an unhinged reality where the central tenet of human propagation is lit on fire: Protect the offspring! And just about one third of the way into its run time, Mom and Dad sets the stakes with its most truly messed-up scene. Kendall’s sister, with whom she has been in communication from the beginning of the movie, goes into labor, and Kendall rushes to be by her side at the hospital. But by this time, the local high school is being sieged by parents overwhelmed with the desire to kill their kids. The audience knows this even if Kendall doesn’t, which means the infanticide pandemic is hitting our heroes right as a newborn is about to enter the picture. It’s at this point that Mom and Dad eclipses Mother! by a country mile for Best Infant in Peril scene of the past 12 months.
“The structure in my head was, we want to start you out in a place where you feel sort of like you might be in the hands of unreliable people, in terms of the filmmaking,” Taylor says when describing how his most harrowing scene came together. “We want to start you out in a place of ‘Maybe I got myself into something that I’m not really prepared for.’” After Kendall’s sister, Jeanne (Rachel Melvin), successfully delivers, she lovingly holds the gooey babe in her arms, realizing that everything Kendall told her about the pain being worth it is totally true.
But then it turns. Jeanne’s smile dissolves and she starts squeezing her baby. Too hard. Then way too hard. And suddenly doctors and nurses and even Kendall herself (in Mom and Dad, people only want to kill their own children) are scrambling to pry the child — still connected to its mother by the umbilical cord — from her arms. At the same time, Jeanne’s husband has dropped his camcorder and also has to be restrained. Then the scalpel comes out as the delivery room is ripped apart by raging parents, while a soundtrack of baby screams and Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” plays you through it.
Taylor says the attempted baby murder was in the script from its very first draft, meaning he was pitching infanticide from the get-go. It was apparently even worse on the page (Taylor won’t elaborate, but does offer, “I’ll just tell you the first scene crossed the line”), but the first attempt at filming the scene was actually much “tamer” than what ended up in the final release. “When we screened the scene it just didn’t work. I felt like it just lacked teeth,” explains Taylor. “So I did a reshoot where we introduced the scalpel, and also where we used a real baby’s face. Using CGI we were able to composite over, because I thought, ‘I’ve gotta see the scalpel, and I’ve gotta see the baby’s face in the same shot.’ It needs that level of ‘Oh, shit!’ It needs that level of ‘Oh, my God!’ Like, ‘They’re not gonna do this! They’re not!’”
Blessedly, the baby survives, but by taking viewers to the edge of the emotional cliff and then dangling them by the ankles before delivering some relief, Taylor deftly executes the most critical moment in Mom and Dad. From that moment forward, whether or not something even more perverse happens down the line is secondary to the fact that you’re worried it might. Threatening the most vulnerable creature possible puts a barbed hook in the viewer just 30 minutes in, leaving it there to tug at your cheek for almost a full hour after that. Mom and Dad is an extremely violent movie, but by shoving all the chips to the center of the table early on, Taylor proves that the threat of violence is just as horrifying as the reality of it.
“When you have this premise, you sort of have to carry it through, but there’s a tremendous line that you walk where, once you cross it, the audience will just hate you,” says the director. “They’ll just hate you, and you’ll never get them back.” Taylor stays on the right side of that red line with Mom and Dad, and if you can grit out the near-death of a newborn baby, the rest of his wild ride is worth the emotional price of admission.