‘Night Mother (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Please don’t kill yourself.

Jessie Cates (Sissy Spacek) informs her mother Thelma (Anne Bancroft) that she plans on killing herself during the night and her distraught mother spends the rest of the evening trying to convince her not to do it.

It is hard to imagine a more maudlin and static production. The film consists of just two people talking inside a small, isolated house with no cutaways, flashbacks, inventive camera angles, interesting scenery, music, or editing. Louis Malle once did a film entitled My Dinner with Andre that featured two men sitting at a table and filling the film’s entire runtime with one long conversation, but at least there the topics were fascinating while here it is depressing. I was expecting some profound intellectually stimulating talk dealing with the meaning of life much like the one in Igmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal, but instead it is general and banal. Part of the problem is that the Thelma character lacks sophistication and is unable to debate Jessie on any type of deeper level. The result then is a rather rhetorical 95 minute banter revolving around Thelma pleading with Jessie not to do it ‘because she needs here’ while Jessie glibly replying ‘I can if I want to’. The screenplay, written by Marsha Norman, who also penned the play from which it is based, fails to deliver that lyrical, poetic quality of dialogue that most films based on stage plays seem to have.

I kept wondering what the point to this was.  We never seem to get to the bottom of what is bothering Jessie and only seem to skim the emotional surface. The film does not dig deep enough into the human psyche but should’ve as her issues here are rather derivative and typical. Her main complaints is that she suffers from epilepsy, which is now under control through medication, and she has gone through a painful divorce, but there a lot of people with similar problems and worse who are not trying to kill themselves. Most viewers might be disgusted and appalled at Jessie’s selfish nature and the way she callously ignores her mother’s emotional pleas and insists on moving forward with the suicide despite how clearly devastating it will be to her mother. In the end the film will probably leave most people cold and unable to connect to either character.

The one thing that does save the film and even makes it riveting to an extent is the brilliant performances. Although I could’ve done without her southern accent I still found Bancroft to be fantastic and was impressed with the way she hit all the right emotional peaks. Spacek is superb in every facet and I liked that she wore no make-up and her face had a natural and worn look.

Tom Moore’s direction has a few nice touches. I liked the opening shot showing the remoteness of the home and how the rugged western landscape helped accentuate the hard-living of the characters. The music although only played at the beginning at end has an ominous tone to it that effectively hits the mood and theme of the material.

Of course suicides are always an on-going issue and if this film had given some insight into it I would have given it more credit, but it really doesn’t. I was surprised that Aaron Spelling who was usually known for producing shallow, glitzy stuff like the TV-show ‘Dynasty’ was the producer here.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 12, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated: PG-13

Director: Tom Moore

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Netflix streaming

One response to “‘Night Mother (1986)

  1. I loved the film, the banal tone was in my opinion the point, poor Thelma just didnt get it and neither did I and so maybe that was the point, maybe even Jesse didnt get the point. She was just tired and felt her death was the only thing in her life she could control since anyone who has “fits” knows they cannot be controlled.

    I thought it was perfect and sad and depressing. It made me feel sorry for those that can relate to Jesse.

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