9:30am PT by Andy Crump
The Most Unhinged Nicolas Cage Movie Moment in Years
Forty-five minutes into filmmaker Brian Taylor’s new film Mom and Dad, Nicolas Cage (playing rampaging dad Brent Ryan) picks up a sledgehammer and starts smashing a pool table while singing “The Hokey Pokey.” This was just minutes after we'd seen him knock out a teenage boy (Robert T. Cunningham) with his bare hands and chase his daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and son Josh (Zackary Arthur) around a cookie cutter suburban oasis in a murderous rage.
Not long after the pool table incident, he’s at it again, finagling ways of flushing his children out of the basement so he and his wife Kendall (Selma Blair) can kill them. The film only gets crazier from there when his own father (Lance Henriksen) drops in and tries to slaughter Cage's Brent, and the entire household descends into loopy, black-comic bedlam, a Looney Tunes bit where the last generation is out to butcher the next.
Think of Mom and Dad as a Russian nesting doll of attempted filicide, if that helps you make sense of things, but at least when Cage menaces his onscreen kids, he’s under the influence of a nasty virus that turns parents into violent child-killers. (The silver lining, if there is one, is that parents only try to kill their own children, but that’s probably not much of a consolation for any of the youths in the film.) When he busts apart his newly built pool table, he’s in his right mind, inasmuch as Cage’s characters are ever in their right mind; he isn’t exactly known for playing calmer types, men who keep their cool under pressure and control their emotions when subject to stress. There’s a reason YouTube is littered with montages of Cage freaking out on camera. It’s his bread and butter.
“Hey, have you ever been dragged to the sidewalk and beaten until you pissed blood?” screams Cage as Roy in 2003’s Matchstick Men. “Hello Miss! I’m a lieutenant in the police department. I’m in the middle of a homicide investigation! Could I get my prescription, please?” he shouts in 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, drawing out the final word with mockingly whiny enunciation. “How could somebody misfile something? What could be easier? It’s all alphabetical!” he tells Elizabeth Ashley in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss before reciting the alphabet at the top of his lungs with manic intensity. And who could forget the time Ellen Burstyn fastened a cage full of bees to Cage’s noggin in 2006’s The Wicker Man?
Grant that anybody would totally lose it if a pagan cult sicced bees on them, but nobody can lose it quite like Cage. (Bonus: Watch all of 1993’s Deadfall, because there are too many good Cage outbursts in that film to single out.) Mom and Dad feels like a film fit for him, then, and in so many ways it is. He’s perfect as worn-out family man Brent Ryan, whether he’s swinging a pickaxe at his son Josh, or chasing him across the house while barking like a dog. Such insanity falls right into Cage’s wheelhouse. But the film’s basic conceit weirdly normalizes him in these scenes. He can’t help himself. His biological instincts have turned on him.
We’re not really sure why parents all over the Ryans’ neighborhood are out for the blood of their brood, but we pick up a few theories via incidental television broadcasts. Dr. Oz talks about ethological instances of savaging in the animal kingdom, wherein mothers exhibit aggressive behavior toward their young; Blair, playing Brent’s wife, catches a brief talking head interview with experts postulating that maybe the attacks are the result of bioterrorism. That’s about as in-depth as writer-director Taylor cares to go, which is for the better, because an explanation for the hysteria would suck all the air out of the film. Pseudoscience isn’t what Mom and Dad is about. Beneath the carnage, it’s about the warping effect parenthood can have on a person’s identity. That’s the horror encompassed by its title: Not the horror of your folks going psycho on you and your brother, but the horror of waking up one day and realizing that you’re no longer Brent and Kendall. You’re, well … you get the idea.
Which is why the Hokey-Pokey sequence is the Cagiest Cage scene in Mom and Dad. It’s one of the few times we see Brent for Brent, where his deranged actions can’t be explained away as the product of an airborne neurotoxin. (Or whatever. Again, the film really doesn’t bother finding a rational or even semi-rational reason for the attacks.) Acting of his own free will, Brent wouldn’t lay a hand on his children (though he might half-jokingly threaten to). Hell, toward Mom and Dad’s climax, Taylor cuts to another flashback scene where Brent cheers up Josh after an accident by regaling him with the story of how he wrecked his own father’s Firebird on an unauthorized joyride back in 1979. It’s a great beat interrupted by mayhem in the present, and it makes us appreciate the sledgehammer scene all the more for its naturalism.
That’s “naturalism” in the sense that the scene includes no greater motivation for a classic Cage conniption than the strain of raising kids, working a lousy job, attending to your spouse’s needs, and paying down a mortgage on a house you can’t afford without living at the office. Brent isn’t on drugs, prescription or otherwise (Bad Lieutenant, Matchstick Men, Deadfall). He isn’t suffering delusions of vampirism (Vampire's Kiss). He isn’t investigating a faked kidnapping (The Wicker Man). He’s just a regular guy trying to reclaim a piece of himself, and that makes his sledgehammer dance sad instead of humorous. You can laugh at most Cage tantrums without feeling too bad about yourself. You laugh at him swinging a sledgehammer, too, but this time the laughs stick in your throat. On a surface level, the scene is every bit as unhinged as the most unhinged moments in Cage’s career. Under that surface, Mom and Dad’s madness is a great deal more tragic.