Within the first few minutes of Jennifer Garner’s latest movie, Peppermint, we meet a very blonde, very shrill, very perfect stay-at-home mom named Peg, who insults Garner’s character for working too much. The two mothers — both white and very suburban — are standing in a grocery store parking lot, arguing over who gets to sell Girl Scout cookies where. Clichéd mom-on-mom insults are exchanged, of the “You’d know the rules if you weren’t too busy WORKING to ever come to a PTA meeting” type and the “Not everyone can stay at home with their kids all day in their perfect MANSION” variety. Garner’s character, Riley North, tries to apologize, but Peg won’t have it. After the argument, Riley’s daughter, Carly, asks her mom why she didn’t just punch Peg in the face.
Fast-forward to the end of the movie, and Riley North does punch Peg in the face. But before we reach that point, we suffer through a number of narrative indignities: Carly gets gunned down by a deadly Latino cartel called the “García gang” and, in retaliation, Riley North becomes a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter who takes out the gang members one by one with military-grade weaponry. If you’re confused about why a white suburban soccer mom is taking on a horribly stereotypical gang pulled straight from Trump’s ravings about MS-13 (“very bad”), you’re not alone. Though the plot of Peppermint is basically a gender-swapped revenge thriller, the gun porn and dangerous stereotypes and “lazy storytelling … where the dangers lurking just outside a perfect suburban existence are pesky Mexican drug warlords,” as Manuel Betancourt wrote in Remezcla, make it less of a indulgently blood-drenched action flick and more of a propaganda piece.
But if you can possibly bring yourself to ignore the entire central plot of Peppermint, I have a conspiracy theory for you: There is no “García gang,” Carly never dies, and no one ever picks up a pornographically large firearm. Instead, Riley North lays awake the night after the confrontation in the parking lot, wishing she could do the day over and indulging in a fantasy of herself as a suburban mom gone badass, an avenging angel. The gang members and the corrupt justice system are just metaphorical stand-ins for the real enemy — Peg.
What oppresses the average white suburban working mother? It’s not “pesky Mexican drug warlords,” that’s for sure. In the first few scenes with pre-MMA Riley North, guns and drugs and roundhouse kicks couldn’t be farther from her mind. And yet, despite a lovely daughter and chill husband named Chris, her life has its tensions: the familiar trials of a woman of trying to have it all in a post–“women can have it all” era. She runs late to work, in heels. She misses part of her daughter’s birthday party because her tyrannical boss makes her work overtime. She and Chris don’t seem to have enough money to buy a house. And after a long day spent juggling work and motherhood, she races home to catch the end of Carly’s birthday party only to find that Peg has sabotaged the entire thing by inviting Carly’s friends to a party at her mansion, so that no one shows up at the North home. It’s very Big Little Lies. It’s very Peg.
In order to salvage the night, the North family heads to a winter carnival, where they ride the Ferris wheel, order peppermint ice cream (get it?), and frolic around on a carousel while laughing in that slightly manic, Instagram-friendly way of suburbanites everywhere. Now, if you’re taking the movie literally, this is the point where a carful of three gang members and about 100 neck tattoos drives by and guns down Carly and Chris, after which Riley realizes the entire justice system is corrupt, drops off the grid, and reappears five years later with better hair, a book-length kill list, and the gun skills of a Navy Seal. This is the “main plot” of the movie — or so Big Hollywood wants us to believe.
But there’s all sorts of weird, distorted, fuzzy mental stuff happening while Riley takes her revenge, and while a less generous critic might call it “bad editing” or “pointless flashbacks,” what if it’s actually supposed to be a hint that reality in suburbia is never what it seems?! After her daughter and husband are “killed” by the “gang,” Riley North is dealt a quick trinity of mental trauma: She wakes up from a coma, she’s put on anti-psychotics, and she gets hit by a Taser in the courtroom and dragged off to a psych ward. Clearly, we’re entering an altered reality, in which the “García gang” is merely a stand-in for all the stresses of her vanilla suburban life — the Job, the Mommy Wars, the Suburbs.
For example: She steals $50,000 from her job (vengeance on her mean boss!). She blows up the corrupt judge in his beautiful suburban home (a reaction against the quiet complacency of suburban life!!). And as she guns down members of the García gang — who, as weird and unrealistic mash-ups of Mexican drug cartel and U.S. street gang members, read more as “suburban mom’s ultimate bogeyman” than legitimate characters — she somehow manages to transform from a bereaved mother into … Supermom. She sticks a gun in the mouth of a random alcoholic dad as she makes him swear to stop drinking and be a better father to his child. She’s about to kill the main drug lord, but stops when his daughter appears. She lives in a van on skid row and protects two children who live there, even saving them from death at the end of the movie. And in exchange for all of this vigilante mothering, she gets a huge mural of herself painted on skid row, in which she has great cleavage and a pair of colossal angel wings. It’s like a “Best Mom Ever” mug, on steroids. With that mural, she’s showing the Pegs of the world that she can get the job done and be there for her children at the same time. She can have it all.
But what has Peg been up to this whole time, you ask? The ultimate tragedy: an embarrassing divorce! When Riley finally confronts Peg, in the penultimate clash of the movie, it’s like one of those fantasies that you cook up after you’ve had a spat with a nemesis, where you go home and come up with not only the perfect comeback, but the perfect exit line, the perfect hair toss, and the perfect outfit. Riley comes limping up to Peg’s mansion with a stomach wound (don’t ask), and when Peg answers the door, Riley punches her right in the face with a satisfying thunk. She then hobbles to Peg’s fancy bathroom, uses one of Peg’s maxi pads to bandage her wound, and limps back out to the kitchen, where Peg is tied up, weeping, and bleeding from her perfect nose. Riley mocks her for being divorced and then puts a gun to her head, which results in the ultimate humiliation — terrified, Peg urinates on the floor.
With Peg thus dispatched, Riley becomes a social-media star, survives about ten gunshot wounds to the chest, defeats the remaining gang members, almost dies on her child’s grave, gets arrested, and then breaks free from her bonds in the last seconds of the movie. But none of it is as compelling — none of it feels as real — as the moment when Peg answers the door of her mansion and gets punched in the face.
Of course, the Vanquishing of Peg could never actually happen. It’s too gotcha, too perfect. None of us get to defeat our enemies with quite such a satisfying thunk. It’s suburban mom make-believe, the same sort of make-believe that thinks García gang members are lurking just beyond those perfectly trimmed ornamental bushes, ready to gun down your husband and child at the slightest provocation. It would never happen in real life — but it just might happen in the tired brain of a working mom, as she lies in bed, feeling the slights of the day like a hundred tiny paper cuts, letting herself imagine for a few feverish minutes how badass she would look if she could burn it all down.