The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
“Don’t I get to know who killed my son?”
Those who know me know that I try to avoid comparing different movies to one another whenever possible. That being said, there’s something about certain plots that keep reappearing so often, that, inevitably, they would eventually become their own sub-genre. The basic premise of The Good Mother puts it firmly in the “parents out for vengeance” genre, the type of film where an ordinary person (one who usually should know much better) goes out to try and find the cause of their child’s untimely death and destroy it in a rational-seeming bid for closure and a less rational one for the hope of bringing their son or daughter back. Sally Field tried this in Eye for an Eye, while Robert DeNiro played a similar variation in City by the Sea. It’s easy to see why filmmakers keep revisiting such a genre; parents who have lost their children to the horrors of the world now seeking answers and justice is one of the most visceral themes, that no matter how the story is told, will always remain powerful. This is true even in a film so utterly boneless as The Good Mother.
In The Good Mother, Hilary Swank stars as Marissa, a journalist who stopped writing following the death of her husband and her son’s spiraling drug addiction. When her estranged son ends up dead in a drug-related killing, Marissa plunges further into despair. Not long after the funeral, her son’s pregnant girlfriend Paige (Olivia Cooke) turns up telling Marissa that the two of them had been clean for a long time and that his death was a murder. Enlisting Paige’s help as well as that of her other son Toby (Jack Reynor), Marissa sets out to find her son’s killer.
Whether The Good Mother could have been a film with something meaningful to say, we’ll never know since its makers apparently were on a time crunch. At just under 90 minutes, everything here feels far too rushed. The plot moves at a breakneck speed, greatly sacrificing character and emotional investment for economical filmmaking. When Paige tells Marissa to stop pretending she’s alone in her grief, nothing that’s said rings true as the scene desperately tries for emotions that simply haven’t been earned yet. It’s just too hard to feel anything for someone you’ve been forced to get to know in a mere 5 minutes. The overall hurriedness also ends up affecting a lot of the surprises and twists, most of which don’t end up hitting the way that they should. This especially applies to a third-act reveal that might’ve been compelling in a film with more exploration and nuance, but here just feels puzzling. All of this ends up shortchanging Marissa who, despite being the movie’s central heroine, eventually ends up feeling like a supporting character. Nowadays it’s popular to root for the 90-minute title and bemoan any movie that tries to be any longer than that. The Good Mother shows how frivolous the argument is and will no doubt end up in the 90-minute movie section on Hulu where its rightful audience is almost certainly waiting for it.
The irony of it all is that despite its “10 items or less” structure and grim subject matter, The Good Mother is actually quite a beautiful film. Director Miles-Joris Peyrafitte has constructed many great angles and creative shots, while Charlotte Hornsby’s cinematography is simply stunning. Visually, The Good Mother is an artistic experience for sure, but it’s also a realistic one. Set in Albany, New York, the world depicted here, from bars to offices to apartments, feels real and credible. With brief glimpses of color among the weariness, the world of The Good Mother is one where hope is possible, but seldom found. The world created here extends to the number of other attributes the film does possess. Even if they’re not handled correctly, the movie’s plot turns allow for it to wear its noir ancestry admirably on its sleeve. The image of a broken family living on vastly different planes of existence makes for an interesting set of characters to follow and the various flashbacks in Marissa’s mind regarding her son’s final moments allow the audience to wonder if this is what happened, or if it’s just what she’s picturing happened.
A film with a plot such as this one should equal up to some pretty raw and emotional performances if nothing else. This is even more true given Swank’s involvement as not only a producer but the movie’s supposed lead. Cooke and Reynor, meanwhile, have done such stellar work in high-profile films for acclaimed filmmakers that The Good Mother should likewise have been a slam dunk for them as well. But because of the script’s shoddy nature, everyone’s performance here amounts to a high school acting class. Each actor seems stuck playing the surface aspects of their character, showing no internalization or firm grasp of any kind whatsoever. It’s almost as if you can hear the cast’s acting teacher in the background instructing everyone to “act sad,” “act scared,” and “show me fear!”
Each time I went to look up The Good Mother on iMDB in preparation for this review, I kept on getting the identically titled The Good Mother as an immediate result. That film was made in 1988 and stars Diane Keaton as a woman who is taken to court and has her suitability as a mother questioned after it is revealed that she let her young daughter sleep in the same bed as her and her new boyfriend played by Liam Neeson. That film has literally nothing in common with 2023’s The Good Mother; with one exception. In their own unique ways, both films ask their audiences to define the word “good” in relation to the job a woman has done as a mother. The two titles seek to define the term “good”, as well as the even larger question of “what defines a mother. These are questions that go beyond the world of film and tap into the kind of moralistic judgment that society has never been able to shake. The question of what makes a “good mother” is a provocative one to ask, for sure. But is it really a fair one?