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Non-Review Review: Mammal

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Mammal is a psychosexual exploration of grief with a strong sense of direction and two strong central performances, albeit one that manages the rare feat of feeling both sensationalism and lifeless in the same instant.

Writer and director Rebecca Daly has a strong sense of tone, creating a palpable uncertainty and anxiety that pervades the first half of the film. Daly crafts an engaging sense of ambiguity, allowing tensions and uncertainties to simmer beneath the surface of the relationship between her two central characters. The performances help a great deal, with Rachel Griffiths doing great work as the divorced and isolated Margaret and Barry Keoghan offering strong support as the mysterious Joe. Mammal is filled with awkward silences and tense foreboding.

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Unfortunately, all of those tension and anxiety has to build to something, and Mammal suffers in how it decides to deliver upon and follow through on all that suspense and ambiguity. Mammal really struggles during its second act, offering twists that should be shocking but are ultimately entirely predictable. Mammal seems to try to escalate in its final act, but the film suffers quite a bit from its own efficiency at setting the mood. In its last forty minutes, the film is left nowhere to go but the most expected directions, the blows softened by the fact they’ve been awkwardly signposted.

Mammal works best when it focuses on the interiority of its characters, but struggles when it asks them to act upon one another.

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Mammal focuses on Margaret, a lonely woman who lives a relatively isolated life. She is active in her local community, involving herself in local activities, but also seems quite detached from the world around her. Over the course of its runtime, Mammal hints at the character’s own past. Margaret was married at one time, and had a child. She left that family to strike out on her own, for reasons that the film leaves ambiguous. Possibilities are suggested, but answers are never offered. “I never asked you to understand,” she bluntly tells her ex-husband.

In terms of themes and visual, Mammal is not a particularly subtle film. Indeed, the movie consciously and repeatedly emphasises the lingering trauma of the experience by focusing on Margaret’s c-section scar. That scar is rendered as a literal expression of the deeper wounds Margaret is nursing and working through; it is quite literally a scar left by the family she abandoned. For all that Mammal consciously and repeatedly avoids articulating the particulars of Margaret’s case, it never hesitates to signpost its intentions.

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To be fair, this sign-posting proves quite handy early on. Daly does an excellent job establishing a mood for the film. Shortly after Margaret discovers that her son has gone missing, she encounters a wounded youth in the alley behind her home. Margaret takes Joe in and tends to his wounds. Over the course of the film, the relationship develops and deepens. Joe is quite clearly a surrogate for Margaret’s lost son, but the film also suggests that there is something more simmering beneath the surface; something untoward.

Daly does excellent work establishing a tension. The film returns time and time again to images and themes of water, establishing its pop psychology sensibility. They sequences are all beautifully shot. Daly also uses her camera very well, consciously sexualising and objectifying Joe in a way that makes the audience uncomfortable even before the script starts dropping hints at a more complicated relationship between Margaret and Joe than the “surrogate son” dynamic implied from the set up.

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Rachel Griffiths and Barry Keoghan do good work in their roles, suggesting hidden psychological depths and nuance to their characters, fleshing out a dynamic that is consciously under-developed by the script. However, one of the central problems with Mammal is that absolutely everything is so carefully and so efficiently signposted in the first ten minutes that the major character beats are fairly easy to predict. Daly is very good at establishing a sense of dread and anxiety, but cannot translate that into the kind of tragic inevitability that is necessary to make it work.

It does not help matters that the two rich central characters seem to inhabit an incredible shallow world. For all that Mammal suggests a rich internal life for Margaret and Joe, the world around them is fairly hollow; the actual events of Mammal are driven by transparent plot expedience rather than a compelling internal logic. Tensions do not escalate to breaking point because the characters reach a threshold, they escalate to breaking point because it is the third act and the film needs a conclusion.

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The movie’s most powerful (but also most predictable) development is essentially forced by a baby and a stray cat, two actors with no unique agency. If Mammal were better constructed, this would seem like an organic development; it could be painted as a conscious demonstration of just how repressed the central characters are and how close to the surface their tensions run. Unfortunately, Mammal lacks that finesse. It feels like the incident occurs purely because the film needed a catalyst and that was that was the easiest way to accomplish what the script needed.

Mammal is full of those sorts of shortcuts that mistake function for form. Margaret’s ex-husband Matt never feels like a real character in his own right, instead appearing as a named plot function. The same is true of Joe’s friends, who function as both plot points and thematic elements while never feeling an more tangible than the baby or the stray cat. There is a shallowness to Mammal, one that suggests the richness of its two lead characters came at the cost of any other depth.

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It is a shame, because Mammal has a very strong sense of tone and two very strong central performances. However, it does not have much of anything else.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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