When a film made with strong technical competence ends up being a by-the-numbers exercise in genre box-ticking, it’s usually just a disappointment. But when it’s also a film with seriously prescient social commentary, it’s an insult to the topics that influenced it and the relevant audience demographics who are screaming out for these stories to be told, to change minds, to shed a light on them. Madres is unfortunately the latter.
The story, set in the 1970s, concerns a young couple – Diana (Ariana Guerra), an American of Spanish-speaking Latin descent, and Beto (Tenoch Huerta), who moved from Mexico 5 years prior. They have a baby on the way and early exposition scenes tell (there’s so much telling rather than showing) us that Diana got fired for being pregnant, so the two are driving across state to her husband’s new job and their new home.
Both of these come with baggage – Beto notes bittersweetly that he’s the first person in his family to have ever become a manager, and the house appears to be given, leased or comes with some kind of tie to his boss. It’s a dusty prop set from a haunted house movie, replete with peeling wallpaper, a rotting fridge and a shed full of objects left by the previous owner. When Diana rifles through to see what can be donated, she comes across some handwritten research about pesticides (new at that time), their dangers, and the presence of the town’s shaman/witch doctor’s repeated offers of a talisman to prevent her from succumbing to a ‘curse’ starts to fray her already tattered nerves.
This film takes almost an hour of its 80-odd minutes just to set this up. That’s too fucking long. Characters make increasingly poor decisions, such as chopping carrots in an absolutely stupid way (knife up, knife down like she’s wanking off a fucking whetstone) WHILE ON THE PHONE (both of her hands were free; she had the phone on her neck), or handling a FILTHY FUCKING EYEBALL that had been dangling from a tree, wiping your hands on a napkin and then putting your arm around your wife’s neck. The obligatory ‘research scene’ (which is supposed to remind us that Diane is a budding journalist/novelist) rings untrue because the records that she’s looking up are things that I wouldn’t trust to have been accurately recorded. Not even now.
There are strong, head-beating overtones of environmentalism, motherhood, migration, and especially the progression of immigration (Diane is Latina and has a quick line about her grandparents being punished for speaking Spanish so her parents never knew it, but her resulting inability to speak Spanish and her pale skin cause other, darker-skinned Mexicans to call her ‘white’). But the storytelling isn’t refined or succinct enough to cover those concepts with the nuance and depth that they sorely, desperately need.
Performances are weak at worst and uneven at best, scenes are under-edited and drag on for far too long to retain tension and, by the end, the only real horror comes from some brief moments just before the credits. This could have been a Black Klansman or a Get Out. Instead it just barely peeks out of the pile of the rest of Amazon’s mediocre horror selection.
This is a crying shame. It didn’t have to be scary; it could have just been good. I wanted this to be so much better.