Writer-director Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad invests a hoary conceit with disturbing and hilarious lunacy. Unfolding over the course of a long day, the film follows parents as they’re driven to kill their children in a mass outbreak of violence. Doubling down on the horror genre’s propensity for chaos, Taylor eliminates the gradual escalation that characterizes the average thriller. There’s no sense of benevolent normalcy in Mom and Dad, or of a control state that’s to be eventually restored or at least fought for. The filmmaker suggests that casual hostility within the family unit is the real normal, buried underneath an ornate series of social pretenses.
The film’s narrative is driven by cultural divides between Gen Xers, millennials, and baby boomers. Brent and Kendall Ryan (Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair) are defined by consciously derivative signposts of suburban conformity. Brent is a bored office drone who sleeps at his office, while Kendall, who left her career in journalism behind to become a housewife, struggles to fill her time. Brent and Kendall’s daughter, Carly (Anne Winters), is initially presented as a stereotypically bored millennial obsessed by her phone, greeting Kendall’s clueless request for her to stop “Facebooking” with contempt. Brent’s father (Lance Henriksen) also surfaces, and he’s a Vietnam vet who tries to kill his son for failing to exhibit a similarly steely sense of survival and patriotism.
In other words, every generation sees the next as pampered and phony, which Taylor connects to the very branding that defines generations to begin with. The Ryans home is littered with plaques and wall paintings featuring bright, banal platitudes about the nature of family, which are pointedly destroyed when Brent and Kendall go on their rampage. The film’s characters aren’t merely stereotypes, but parodies of our need to stereotype ourselves by acquiescing to certain expectations of culture, generation, and class. Brent defines his ideal masculinity by his old Trans Am, while Kendall attends a Zumba class full of sexually frustrated women on the cusp of middle age. Each of these habits are dramatized by Taylor with a ripe sense of hyperbole that satirizes nostalgia, particularly in recurring sequences in which a young Brent has ludicrous, frenzied sex in the Trans Am.
Yet Taylor’s theme doesn’t weigh down his aesthetic, which recalls his collaborations with Mark Neveldine. Mom and Dad has the texture and inexplicability of a free-floating nightmare. Photographed by Daniel Pearl, who fashioned the sun-cracked landscapes of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film’s images have a similarly gritty sense of overexposure. A shot of eggs as they’re cracked into a frying pan is bathed in rays of sunlight that suggest we’re seeing breakfast as it might be prepared in a classic Americana diner, though the scene is revealed to be set in a suburban kitchen. Such misplaced imagery pervades the film, emanating a sense of wrongness that’s exacerbated by a camera that’s always swerving from one canted, prismatic angle to the next. The editing fuses multiple timelines while parodying the internet-surfing ADD of the modern world, propelling the narrative forward while fostering a tone of cheeky debauchment.
Taylor stages violence with an unmooring sense of bodily concussion—which is rendered all the more disturbing by the film’s nasty comic streak. The audience isn’t allowed to see much of what the parents do to their children, but fleeting shards of imagery speak volumes. Parents line up like zombies outside of a high school. When a child tumbles over the school’s fence into the adults, we see a hand raise a car key in the air to gouge him—an unusual and perversely specific detail that’s worth more than gallons of fake blood. When Brent attacks Carly’s African-American boyfriend, he’s understood to be acting out of racial fear rather than sickness, slamming the boy’s head down to the kitchen floor. The final act offers a smorgasbord of absurdist atrocities, equating child murder to yet another act that’s mechanically adopted by complacent yuppies attempting to keep up with the times.
Cage and Blair make a meal of the script’s aphoristic obscenities. The film’s best and most moving joke is its understanding of Ryan and Kendall as being unhinged before the mysterious outbreak. In a flashback, Brent buys a pool table and painstakingly levels it only to demolish it with a sledgehammer when Kendall questions his need for a “man cave.” Cage’s gestures are viscerally bold, as the actor turns Brent’s rage and despair up to 11, rendering the man’s emotions funny without cocooning them in detachment. The scene is emblematic of Cage’s peculiar brilliance, as he’s sincere yet Warholian in his understanding of kitsch as both powerful and breathtakingly stupid. Meanwhile, Blair invests Kendall with an eagerness to please that tragically brings out everyone else’s worst instincts. When Kendall utters the branded phrase “man cave” to Brent, she’s trying to be empathetic rather than belittling. Cage and Blair inform Mom and Dad with its most audacious nuance, suggesting that a regression into animalism might save Brent and Kendall’s relationship. Millennials are currently the victims of bad P.R., and Taylor understands them to be playing the hand they’ve been dealt by prior generations, who resent them while eating them alive.