'Ma' Review: Octavia Spencer Does Everything She Can With A Scattered Horror Villain

It's rare to see a movie that is so ballsy as to literally introduce a gun in the first act, only to potentially refuse to have that gun go off, defying the law of Chekhov's Gun in fiction. Such may be the case, though, with Ma, a strange new thriller that eventually tips into straight-up horror. Much of the film, directed haphazardly by Tate Taylor, is all about hinting at what might be going on inside the mind of a seemingly friendly lady played by Octavia Spencer. As is often the case, the setup is better than the payoff.Ma, title aside, doesn't begin with Spencer. Instead, we first meet Maggie (Diana Silvers), a 16-year old who's moved with her mother (Juliette Lewis) to the latter's middle-of-nowhere hometown. Maggie soon finds a core group of friends, all of whom are desperate to drink themselves silly in lieu of doing anything else fun. Lucky for them that a veterinary nurse named Sue Ann (Spencer) is willing to buy them a few bottles of booze for their late-night shenanigans. If that seems like icky behavior for an adult to exhibit, it's just the tip of the iceberg. Sue Ann soon opens up her house as a partying hub, trying her best to befriend the kids...or maybe do something much more nefarious for reasons barely known.Taylor, working from a script by Scotty Landes, seems a bit of an odd choice to direct what ends up being a warped character study/psychological thriller. His biggest hit to date is the period dramedy The Help, for which Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and he's also directed the James Brown biopic Get On Up and The Girl on the Train. Get On Up, though, zigged where other music biopics zag, and Ma unquestionably defies expectations. Sometimes, that's in the film's favor, as it dually focuses on Sue Ann and Maggie, the latter played well by the winsome, Gillian Jacobs-like Silvers. Sometimes, it's against the film, though; that Chekhov's Gun bit above, for instance, is potentially just reflective of Taylor not being a skilled enough director to make clear that the gun used in the first act is also the same gun brought out in the finale.Spencer, too, is quite good in a role that seems as inspired by the kind of work Kathy Bates did in Misery as by a white person's perception of a "sassy" black woman. (When Sue Ann reveals the aforementioned gun to the kids' horror, she laughs it off by pointedly saying it doesn't work and quipping, "Who do you think I am, Madea?") The problem isn't in the performances, or even in the brief expansion of Sue Ann's life story that we get, as much as it is that the film doesn't know who it's about. The first half of the film is pretty squarely focused on Maggie as the protagonist. She's an almost literal audience surrogate, serving as our entry point for the citizens of a small town where everyone knows each other and/or went to school with each other when they were kids.Yet soon after Spencer first appears, we begin to get flashbacks to Sue Ann as a younger woman. Each of the flashbacks, doled out throughout the film, hints to what is an arguably very, very obvious twist, made all the more maddening by the way Taylor and Landes handle this reveal as being shocking instead of painfully predictable. The rest of the adult cast – including Allison Janney, Luke Evans, and Missi Pyle – are all leaning into the B-movie-style exploitation feel of Ma, but it's still somewhat frustrating that the story they're working with eventually leans more on being about Ma as a freaky specter of bullying gone wrong.The ad campaign for Ma has already hinted at the fact that Ma is up to no good, but the film's slow-burn reveal of why she's doing what she's doing only serves to make what should be a delightfully wacky and violent third act seem weird in all the wrong ways. What we learn about Sue Ann, who seems to prefer the nickname "Ma", doesn't really clarify a whole lot about her personality. Spencer is more than willing to flesh out the character, but she can only do so much.Taylor – who's worked with Spencer and Janney on just about every feature he's made – is able to come up with one legitimately good jump scare in Ma, a Blumhouse production that otherwise feels quite wrong for the horror-film company. That one scare is both well thought-out and totally unexpected, and a hint at how much more bonkers this movie could have been. The cast is willing and able, and there's nothing wrong with a scary movie that doesn't want to bombard you with shocks from the start. But Ma isn't ever able to fully develop its characters, leaving them all a bit stranded./Film Rating: 5 out of 10