Motherly (2020)

Motherly first published by

In the opening sequence of Motherly, we see various exteriors of a desolate modern farmhouse and barn, and then young girl Beth McKinley (Tessa Kozma) inside sitting alone on the sofa in a blindfold, while adult Kate (Lora Burke, For The Sake Of Vicious) stands over her with a kitchen knife saying ominously, “It’s time.” In fact Kate is Beth’s mother, and she is signalling to her daughter to remove the blindfold so that she can see the cake laid out before her on the table for her ninth birthday – but for the briefest of moments, Craig David Wallace, who helmed and co-wrote the film (with Ian Malone), has misdirected us into believing that we are witnessing a messed-up abduction/slasher scenario rather than a happy scene of domestic partying.

Except that it isn’t so happy. Beth is annoyed to be stuck out here far from anywhere, being home-schooled and kept inside by the solicitous, controlling Kate, with no playmates her own age, and without her dad. And she is annoyed that Kate will not join her in a birthday game of hide and seek – “We don’t play that anymore,” says Kate. What Beth does not fully comprehend is that mother and daughter are out there under a witness protection programme, while her father Brad serves time in prison for the murder of their seven-year-old neighbour Courtenay two years earlier during a game of hide and seek, back when the McKinleys lived in middle-class suburbia. Despite the frequent, not entirely proper presence of local policeman Hal (Colin Paradine), Kate lives in constant fear that the ‘kid killer’ will return, and senses that they are not alone on the isolated farm property – and when Mary (Kristen MacCulloch) and Lewis (Nick Smyth) violently reveal themselves, convinced that Brad was not really Courtenay’s killer and seeking some extralegal justice, it begins to look as though Motherly may, after all, be presenting an abduction/slasher scenario full of misdirection. 

A taut, twisty affair, Motherly is, as its title suggests, a study in the excesses of maternal love, as two mothers – one vindictive, the other protective – are pitted against each other in a duel that tests the viewer’s sympathies to their limits. Anyone who has seen Bong Joon-ho’s similarly named Mother (2009), or even Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), will have a pretty good idea where things are headed, but along the way there are plenty of contradictory flashbacks, torture-driven confessions, and belated games of hide and seek for the little birthday girl in jeopardy, all to ensure that the thrills keep coming. Yet for all the cat and mouse, this is also a writer’s block narrative, as Kate struggles to put a well-crafted version of her life story to paper for publication, even as, one way or another, a mother lode of truth must eventually be exposed.

strap: Craig David Wallace’s farmhouse survival thriller uses twisty cat-and-mouse plotting to test the outer limits of maternal love

© Anton Bitel