‘The Good Mother’: Hilary Swank Delivers the Emotional Power This Limp Murder Mystery Lacks

Casting is everything in “The Good Mother.” Without these talents on screen, there just wouldn’t be much else to this movie. Some films work that way, where the photography and performances come together in an appealing harmony, despite the story becoming a bit airless. For Hilary Swank this is the latest low-budget production to showcase her transformative abilities. What the dialogue won’t say she fully conveys through a performance of quiet pain. Plots involving grieving mothers and addiction can be overplayed, but Swank creates a real persona. Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte puts particular focus on atmosphere, convincingly creating a time and place, but atmosphere isn’t enough when the plot feels like an unclosed circle.

Swank plays Marissa, a journalist in Albany, NY who is clearly a functioning alcoholic. She gets pulled out of a staff meeting to learn the shattering revelation that her son Michael has been gunned down. The news is delivered by her other son, a cop named Toby (Jack Reynor). Michael was a known addict, so there’s little doubt the killing is drug-related. At the funeral, Marissa crosses paths with Michael’s girlfriend, Paige (Olivia Cooke), a fellow junkie who reveals she’s both clean now and pregnant. She also needs a place to stay. Mother and grieving girlfriend now try to work together to find answers to the murder. A first key link is Ducky (Hopper Penn), Michael’s former bestie and a dealer. Their search will only raise more questions than answers. 

Joris-Peyrafitte seems to be making a movie split into parallel parts. One is an engaging character study and the other a forced plot that feels tagged on for industry demands. If the story had been purely about Marissa’s struggles and journey, it would have been compelling enough. Swank is more than up to the task, evoking sleepless nights and the body’s demand for more alcohol. Her voice sounds tired from the whole battle. The entire lineup is enough for good drama, with Olivia Cooke making Paige empathetic and Jack Reynor fitting perfectly into the role of the son who was deceptively more responsible. Norm Lewis, a Broadway regular, also appears as Marissa’s editor-in-chief, giving a tiny role strong focus. Hopper Penn, son of Sean and Robin Wright, is practically only used in low-lit flashbacks. We learn more about him through other people’s conversations.

As the movie progresses both storylines cancel each other out, resulting in neither going anywhere satisfying as a narrative. This is one of those films that still believe classic print journalism is a thing, with the editor telling Marissa she’s his best writer and should take some time off to really write. Never does the film truly establish her identity as a writer or journalist, because it then veers into the overly hazy mystery involving Michael’s death. Too little is made clear and the stakes are rarely raised. Joris-Peyrafitte’s screenplay co-written with Madison Harrison plays around with hints of wider themes. Is the movie about Marissa’s guilt as a mother or about how drugs like fentanyl are impacting American communities? A strong movie can be about both, this one can’t decide. Characters like a mother (Karen Aldridge) Marissa meets at a self-help meeting simply disappear after a scene that suggests it could have developed into an important relationship.

Not much happens in “The Good Mother,” despite the movie being watchable on a surface level because of Charlotte Hornsby’s cinematography full of gloss and grit, though sometimes curious choices are made involving drone shots and long, zooming wide angles that suggest someone is spying on Marissa. When the story should climax it builds to a bizarre twist that is never fully explained and amounts to someone saying “I’m sorry,” before the story transitions to Marissa sitting down to write a sure Pulitzer-winner. Before that there’s a rather shocking death that even more shockingly fizzles out when it comes to its implications. The same can be said for the important link between Marissa and Paige, another lost opportunity where not much happens in terms of character growth.

Hilary Swank always brings her unique presence to anything she’s in, which recently has included some odd choices, mostly thrillers like 2020’s “Fatale,” where she was entertaining in a rather illogical erotic revenge plot. “The Good Mother” proves she needs to be back in larger productions with weightier material. For now, this movie feels like what you pitch as an idea, not a fully formed screenplay. It looks good and the cast delivers. They bring urgency and emotion to material in desperate need of it. Joris-Peyrafitte has the eye for noteworthy directing as well, but the story has to come before the style. Sometimes it’s not just big franchises that deserve a reboot.

The Good Mother” releases Sept. 1 in select theaters.