The victim is Michael Bennings, a junkie, drug dealer and petty thief — seen mostly in flashback — played by Madison Harrison, who, with director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, wrote this strangely un-thrilling thriller. Swank plays Michael’s mother Marissa, a journalist at the Times Union newspaper who drowns her own misery, about Michael and the previous death of her husband, in copious amounts of booze.
When she encounters Michael’s pregnant girlfriend, Paige (Olivia Cooke), at the funeral, Marissa’s first instinct is to punch her in the face, despite a warning from Marissa’s other son, Toby, an Albany cop, who tells her to let it go. Toby already has an suspect: Ducky, Michael’s jumpy best friend and a fellow junkie, played by Sean Penn’s son Hopper Penn.
It is hardly a spoiler to point out that any suspect fingered in the first 15 minutes of a film is most likely not the real culprit. Nor will it come as a surprise that Marissa and Paige — well, mostly Paige — decide to do a little poking around on their own, and that this will turn out to be a bad idea. A witness to the crime (Norm Lewis) identifies the driver of a white truck, an unidentified man with a distinctive tattoo on his hand, as the shooter.
The plot, in which Swank is given little more to do than guzzle Costco-size bottles of liquor and mope, proceeds in somewhat somnambulist fashion, generating surprisingly little suspense even when Paige confronts a suspect whose identity has been telegraphed throughout the film. This comes as a disappointment, at least for viewers who have watched a movie or two before.
The film, whose working title was at one point “Mother’s Milk,” took its earlier name from the moniker for a blend of heroin cut with fentanyl that is shown to be plaguing Albany in the film. And the theme of motherhood runs deep throughout the screenplay, with Marissa the mother of two sons, Paige an expectant mother and Toby’s wife Gina trying to get pregnant. Who the “good” mother of this film may exactly be — in this cinematic support group for mothers and mothers to be, tormented at every turn by bad sons — is left open to interpretation. Moral ambiguity abounds.
This equivocation, which comes across as not so much a deliberate puzzle than inadvertent vagueness, is frustrating. So is the film’s ending, which opts for ambivalence in an effort to introduce questions about the sometimes difficult distinction between right and wrong, justice and mercy. Maternal love is not always to easy to parse, “The Good Mother” suggests, especially when vengeance — or at least closure — is so hard to achieve.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language throughout, some violence and drug use. 89 minutes.
POST AUTHOR: Michael O’Sullivan