'The Curse Of La Llorona' Review: You'd Weep, Too, If This Was Your Movie [SXSW]

The Curse of La Llorona opens in Mexico in 1673, as we meet the weeping woman of the title in her, shall we say, better days. The film introduces us to the Latin American legend, in which a scorned woman drowns her children in a river and then becomes overtaken by grief and guilt. It's an affecting way to begin a movie. It's also the last time The Curse of La Llorona works on almost any level.

We jump forward 300 years to Los Angeles in 1973, and you might be asking yourself why this movie is set in the '70s. There's no real thematic reason for it, and it's so stylistically bland as to take minimal advantage of such an aesthetically interesting decade. No, The Curse of La Llorona is set in 1973 merely so we can have one throwaway scene connecting this film to the Conjuring universe in the most perfunctory way possible. Tony Amendola's Father Perez shows up for a hot minute, reminisces about a doll, we get a black-and-white flashback to Annabelle, and BOOM, you've got yourself a Conjuring movie.

Linda Cardellini plays Anna, a widowed mom and CPS investigator whose job takes her to the home of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez). Patricia's boys haven't been to school in a few days, and Anna checks in on them, finding them locked in a closet with a protective sigil painted on the door. Turns out, Patricia's trying to harbor her children from La Llorona, a weeping ghoul in white who has spent three centuries stealing kids, trying to replace those she drowned in a fit of jealousy, and now Anna's own kids (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are in danger of getting snatched.

La Llorona must have been such a thankless role for Marisol Ramirez, who does nothing but shriek for ninety-plus minutes. The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily – desperately? – on jump scares, and if you jump the first couple times La Llorona's ghastly, screeching visage pops into the frame, just wait it out, because it happens so often that you'll be numb to her in no time. I mean, surely that's not director Michael Chaves' aim, to show us his monster so many times that she starts to bore us, right? And yet.

Other decisions made by Chaves and writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis are easier to suss out, and the motivation seems almost entirely commercial. Why is this movie set in the 1970s? So we can connect it to a popular film franchise. Why does Raymond Cruz's faith healer keep making corny jokes in the middle of life-threatening scenarios? Oh, because you're hoping he'll be a fan favorite and get his own spinoff. So many of La Llorona's narrative choices feel made by committee for the crassest possible reasons, forfeiting sensible storytelling in favor of in-jokes, flashbacks and easter eggs. The Curse of La Llorona fails on the most basic level: it never manages to tell a logical story in a compelling way.

Which would be fine, sort of, if it was still a good time. It's easy for horror fans to forgive a dumb story as long as the scares are good and the energy's up. But La Llorona is tepid and lackadaisical for nearly every minute of its runtime. The scares are telegraphed, the pacing is sleepy and it doesn't even try to visually engage its audience. Everything's blue, grey or beige, hazy and flat. You'll walk out with eyes yearning to see color, any color, because this movie is so bereft of it.

And here's the rub: Linda Cardellini, while good in her role, isn't the badly needed boon she should be (or usually is). We should all have more Linda Cardellini in everything, generally, except maybe in this. Why is Linda Cardellini the lead in a movie centered around a legend Latin Americans have been telling for generations? Sure, her character's full name is Anna Tate-Garcia, and her children are biracial, but since her husband died before the movie began and her kids' cultural heritage is never examined by La Llorona in even the most obligatory way, it's impossible to know how everyone involved thought adding a "-Garcia" to her name would somehow mitigate the fact that a white actress is the lead in a movie about La Llorona. I'd love to see a version of this movie from Velasquez's point of view, or Cruz's – or even from Anna's kids. But they're all relegated to the supporting sidelines.

It's a bummer, because La Llorona is such a cool, spooky folktale, and a movie about the weeping woman produced by James Wan sounds like a no-brainer. But everything's just so half-baked and lazy here, the direction and especially the storytelling. It seems as if The Curse of La Llorona was broken from its very inception, because instead of starting with "Wouldn't it be cool if we told a story about La Llorona," the producers asked, "Wouldn't it be cool if we sneaked another movie into the Conjuring universe?" La Llorona herself feels like an afterthought. No wonder she's weeping.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10