While some hated that, in Life of Pi, the journalist kept stating obvious facts (‘So Richard Parker was the tiger?’), it served a purpose. It helped you understand the facts, so you could get on with the story. Mammal, the new film from Irish director Rebecca Daly, isn’t that simple. From title down, it’s often hard to make out what exactly it all means…
Margaret lives an isolated life, working in some sort of shop, driving some sort of car, and mothering some sort of cats. She also likes to swim. Then two things happen: 1), she receives news that her son – whom she pretty much abandoned – has gone missing, and 2), she discovers Joe (of similar age and appearance to her son) lying bloodied and unconscious in an alley behind her house.
She cares for Joe, and the two form an unusual, and often uneasy, friendship. However, further confusion abounds, as ex-husband Matt stalks Margaret, hoping to seek some solace in her over their missing child.
And from this point on, things happen. A cat attacks a baby. A local thug breaks into Margaret’s house, only to leave seconds later. Margaret does a lot of swimming. Other than the through-line of Joe and Margaret’s relationship, nothing seems connected, or consequential. Perhaps this type of narrative would work better if played as a psychological horror, with the randomness of everything piling up on Margaret’s shoulders, but it’s all too straight. Joe and Margaret flirt with interesting things, but the film never goes there for long. The camerawork is stoic, documentarian, boring. It sees the actions but evokes no real meaning from them.
If you think these are too lofty criticisms for a ‘movie’, Mammal is art-house. It wants to be seen as impressionistic and intelligent, but often ends up confusing and pointless.
The main positives are the performances. Rachel Griffiths as Margaret uses miniscule expressions to show layers of emotion, or, possibly to hide the fact she has no emotion, no feeling for others. Barry Keoghan is of course excellent, a brutal concoction of masculinity and vulnerability. He proves once again that if he plays his cards right, he could be Ireland’s answer to Stephen Graham. Their interactions are so natural and so much happening non-verbally, that when they do have to spout the script, it feels like it’s getting in the way.
In the end, Mammal is a song without a chorus, a sharp inhale without a sneeze. You may leave thinking that you’re not smart enough for comprehending the complexities and nuances at play, but if it doesn’t work, that’s the film’s fault.
Not a lot happens and then it’s over.