Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s The Good Mother is a decently slick ‘thriller’ that would ultimately fare better as an emotionally driven character drama.
Marketing Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s The Good Mother as a thriller is, perhaps, doing it somewhat of a disservice. While it certainly has thriller elements, it’s a film that would function much better as a character drama about the rawness of grief in a society crippled by substance abuse. It’s slick and the narrative doesn’t drag, but it’s also very insular and restrained in a manner almost to its detriment. Good performances and stylistic choices elevate the bare bones story, but it can’t escape the feeling that there’s something missing.
Marissa (Hilary Swank) is a journalist with a drinking problem, grieving the sudden death of her estranged, drug-addicted son Michael (Madison Harrison). It’s implied that he was killed by his friend slash dealer Ducky (Hopper Penn) over a case of dirty heroin, but after reconnecting with his girlfriend Paige (Olivia Cooke) at the funeral, Marissa isn’t so sure. The pair decide to delve deeper into the murky mystery – much to the chagrin of Marissa’s other son, police officer Toby (Jack Raynor), – and find themselves embroiled in something much more corrupt than they bargained for.
If The Good Mother is indeed a thriller, then it’s a very self-contained one as almost every character involved in Marissa’s ‘investigation’ is a member of her immediate circle. The film hints at a bigger picture – one of America’s drug problem and the consequences of these dangerously diluted drugs flooding the market –, but is ultimately a much more personal story about Marissa and her relationship with being a mother. And while that is a compelling angle, it doesn’t necessarily work 100% of the time here.
In part because the script strays into predictability, but also because by hooking the film on a protagonist that is so closed off and brooding, Joris-Peyrafitte leaves us at a remove as well. Simply put: it’s very difficult to connect with Marissa on an emotional level as she all but drowns in the sea of her own grief. We get very little insight into her feelings or emotions, other than the fact that she’s struggling and has been for a while. Her behaviour and her drinking is frustratingly dismissed by those around her, and she isn’t particularly loquacious nor emotionally present for most of the film. As a result, the emotional heft of the final act, which would have sat squarely on her shoulders, simply isn’t there.
Swank is, predictably, giving an impressive performance, but it just doesn’t seem to work within the confines of Joris-Peyrafitte’s film. If The Good Mother leant further into being a character drama, and the two-time Oscar winner was able to really sink her teeth into the meat of what drives Marissa, then it may have been easier to connect with her emotional arc. But instead the film seems committed to being a thriller, utilising sharp editing (from Damian Rodriguez and Taylor Levy) and suitably tense music (from Joris-Peyrafitte and Eric Slick) to make it slick and pacy, and so it feels a little lacking in that regard.
Cooke and Raynor are equally as committed to the grittiness with their performances, with the former deftly delivering some light into what is generally a pretty dour film. But the good performances, stylistic embellishments and tight script don’t make up for that missing nugget of magic that would make it really work. It feels as though the film, while relatively compelling, could have been more than what it ultimately ended up being. And that’s a shame.
The Good Mother is certainly not a bad film, but it isn’t a great one either.
The Good Mother will be released in US theaters on September 1, 2023.