That The Mother opens with minimal exposition is supposed to be clever. As directed by Niki Caro, the film tosses us immediately into a violent situation featuring an imperilled Jennifer Lopez, an evil Joseph Fiennes, and, as implied by the title, the unborn child that will blow this couple apart and draw them back together. What’s eventually revealed, however, is that the absence of context here is not some screenwriting conceit; it’s because this is an empty film.
As with any action movie, the story of The Mother is designed to lead the film toward setpieces that allow for fighting, gunplay, and explosions. Put together by writers Andrea Berloff, Peter Craig, and Misha Green, Caro’s film has all that, even if each of those sequences feels like they’ve been sutured together by a million cuts—and are drawn from other, better movies. (It really took three writers to put this cliched plot together?) In any case, from that aforementioned intro, there’s a 12-year time jump: the child is now Zoe (Lucy Paez), snatched from her adoptive family by Fiennes’ paramilitary mastermind Adrian Lovell and his loony lieutenant Hector Álvarez (Gael Garcia Bernal, cashing a cheque). This launches Lopez’s now-retired assassin into action, granting her the opportunity to, you guessed it, become the mother figure she never was while training her innocent child to be more self-reliant (re: violent). On this note, it really is impossible to spoil the film—and it’s just as impossible to be surprised by it. Everything happens here as it must.
This is what really rankles about Caro’s The Mother. So much of it feels like a particularly rancid piece of American wisdom: the world is a scary place because of evil men, but there’s no way out except for constant vigilance and neverending surveillance. Every attempt to shield new eyes from trauma is foolhardy and everyone must be ready to pull the trigger. To which I say: in life, as in art, there has to be a better way.