Film Review – The Mother
Given her history as a dancer, as well as her willingness to take on physically demanding roles – from Hustlers (2019) to the slapstick of Shotgun Wedding (2022) – it’s surprising that Jennifer Lopez hasn’t done more action films. She clearly has the physicality to do it. In The Mother (2023), she runs, jumps, punches, kicks, and shoots her way through a barrage of bad guys – utilizing her talents to make a believable assassin and all around badass. Unfortunately, everything else fails to keep up with her efforts. This is a forgettable action picture. The only interest is in seeing its main star accomplish feats the rest of us cannot.
There has been some discussion in the last few years about “The Movie Star” becoming irrelevant. The argument is that mainstream audiences will come in droves due to brand recognition, nostalgia, and familiarity, regardless of who is in the starring role. Lopez is one of the few exceptions to the rule. She is the definition of a star, and here she fills the requirements with natural ease. Without her, The Mother feels like another bland genre exercise, the kind of role Liam Neeson has settled comfortably in for the better part of the last two decades. At the very least, Lopez appears committed to the bit. When we see her driving a motorcycle at high speeds, we believe she’s fully into it. When she poses in the middle of a snowy field with a furry jacket covering her head and a rifle slung over her shoulder, she sells it better than just about anyone else.
It’s a shame the movie does her no favors. Directed by Niki Caro (with a screenplay by Misha Green, Andrea Berloff, and Peter Craig), the narrative is split in two distinct halves. Lopez plays “The Mother,” a hardened ex-soldier who, after a botched deal leaves several dead FBI agents, is forced to give up custody of her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez). Despite being cast off to the far reaches of the Alaskan wilderness, The Mother keeps tabs on Zoe through Cruise (Omari Hardwick), a friend and fellow agent in the bureau. Fast forward a few years, and we find Zoe being kidnapped by nefarious crime organizations. The Mother springs into action, getting back into the game to save her daughter and take down those responsible.
The first half is the fun section, as The Mother tracks her daughter to the mean streets of Havana, Cuba. This is where the production stages some of the bigger set pieces, including an extended foot and motorcycle chase. Lopez jumps into the action with conviction, leaping over rooftops and hopping across cars like no big deal. The editing, unfortunately, does not help amplify these sequences. There is a herky jerky style in the way the action is spliced together. In one instance, Lopez is called upon to simply run from one end of a rooftop to the other side. Ben Seresin’s cinematography captures this small bit of time from nearly every possible angle. From a wide shot looking down, to a handheld medium shot, from the back of Lopez to the front, to her feet stomping on the ground, etc. – the moment is directed, filmed, and edited with such a hectic approach that it badly calls attention to itself.
There are several examples where stylistic choices stick out like a sore thumb. Occasionally, when The Mother shifts into killer mode, the edges of the frame will blur. I suppose this is meant to tell us that she is becoming hyper focused, intent to get her answers and not taking “No” for an answer. But it is heavy handed and awkwardly handled. It plays more as a gimmick than an interesting cinematic technique. This becomes more apparent in the second half, when the relationship between The Mother and Zoe is further explored once they return to Alaska.
All the visual fireworks of the first half dissolve away to a much quieter, character-focused second. This is where the film starts to really fall apart. My assumption is that the narrative is trying to point out how a life in the military can suck the soul out of a person. The Mother was born and raised in violence, and thus became a machine. However, instead of Zoe being an anchor for The Mother to find her humanity again, their dynamic backfires. Their only connection is through bloodshed. The Mother teaches Zoe how to hunt, set explosive devices, and to kill using a long-distance sniper rifle. Instead of finding love and compassion through empathy, The Mother teaches her daughter to be a machine herself. The Mother imprints her warped view of the world onto someone she hasn’t had contact with in years. In her mind, the best way to stay safe is by pulling a trigger. Given the times we’re living in, that message is a bit of a slippery slope, no?
Look, I’m not here to argue the morality of fictional violence (I did say that the first half was the better section), but The Mother has some of its wires crossed in terms of what it wants to be. Is this meant to be an over-the-top action flick, where The Mother gets into a James Bond-like shootout while driving a snowmobile on the side of a mountain? Or is this an earnest tale of a mother and daughter getting to know one another? Gael García Bernal and Joseph Fiennes show up as mustache-twirling villains. Their connections with The Mother make for some of the more ridiculous plot tangents. But how are we supposed to take them compared to Paul Raci, who gives a legitimately dramatic performance as a fellow veteran and ally to The Mother? All these contrasting tones sink the narrative.
Jennifer Lopez has immense talent – she is one of the few celebrities that can garner an audience with her name alone. With her skillset, delving into action should be an easy homerun, but she deserves material that’s as good as she is. In The Mother, Lopez does too much of the heavy lifting.