As newlyweds, my husband and I received plenty of unsolicited parenting advice, which we are currently squandering on cats. Most remarks took the form of a warning (“It’s so hard. You don’t know what exhaustion is yet”), quickly neutralized by an affirmation (“…but it’s the best thing you’ll ever do”). Noticeably, these phrases never came in reverse order.
During a recent family Thanksgiving, I accompanied my husband on a trip to visit his late grandmother in her nursing home. She spent decades of her life raising children: four of her own and countless others in her capacity as a beloved science teacher in her small, rural town. If anyone was qualified to counsel us on the care and feeding of our imaginary offspring, it was her. Reminiscing about her own sons and daughters, her eyes gleamed with affection. “Having children is…the most wonderful—wonderful…” A past stroke forced her to rummage through her still-sharp mind for the precise words she wanted, so we waited out the lull, expecting to be deposited upon familiar ground. “…experience.” She grasped my spouse’s hand in hers and chuckled.
“But I couldn’t…I couldn’t have any big knives in the house. Or I might have killed them.”
Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad (2017) takes zero time to arrive at the same sentiment. The film opens with an extreme close-up of a woman staring blankly at her dashboard, a mop of blond curls barely visible in the passenger’s seat. Without glancing beside her, the woman turns on the radio, exits the vehicle, and, to the wistful strains of Dusty Springfield, abandons her child on the railroad tracks to die.
When the tragedy is reported on the morning news, the Ryan family—resentful father Brent (Nicolas Cage), bored housewife Kendall (Selma Blair), rebellious teen daughter Carly (Anne Winters), and prepubescent son Josh (Zackary Arthur)—pause their bickering over breakfast to gape at the aberration. Kendall shakes her head in horror and Brent ghoulishly squirts a toy car with ketchup while telling Josh to “always do what Mom says.” As we follow the Ryans through their routine, however, it becomes clear that Brent and Kendall—along with most of their peers—have more in common with this suburban Medea than they’d like to admit. Petty squabbles with their children are imbued with latent menace. (Many of these winking close-up shots could have been pulled from the opening titles of Showtime’s Dexter.) When she’s insulted by Carly during a ride to school, Kendall’s jaw clenches brutally, even as her eyes brim. She grasps the steering wheel like she’s trying to hold herself together—or throttle a proxy for her child. At home, a playful Brent slams his son on the couch with more than necessary force, then tickles him in an attack that’s shot and scored like Taylor’s earlier movie, the frenetic, mayhem-orgy Crank (2006). When Josh fights back, bouncing a rubber ball off his father’s head, Cage’s face freezes in a mask of barely contained rage before he melts into jokey laughter. From the outset of the film, it’s clear that Brent and Kendall are loving parents. All parenting in Mom and Dad, however, exists on a spectrum of violence. A bad parent acts on their infanticidal urges, while a good parent sublimates them.
“For me, you and Josh are everything,” Kendall tells Carly. But we can read the subtext in Kendall’s eyes: I just can’t have any big knives in the house.
Mom and Dad is a distinct entry in the “killer-parent” subgenre. The trope is most common in supernatural horror films—The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), Oculus (2013), The Babadook (2014)—as if only possession by a malevolent force could cause a mother or father to turn on their own children. Thrillers like The Night of the Hunter (1955), Scream for Help (1984), and The Stepfather (1987, 2009) take the action back to the human plane, but soften the blow by outsourcing the infanticide to an interloper—a pretender to the patriarch’s throne. Killer mommies, by contrast, are almost always victims of postpartum depression—as in The Others (2001), Shutter Island (2010), Atrocious (2010), and Baby Blues (2008)—or another form of mental instability that provides the secular parallel to possession. Perhaps the prototypical cases are Margaret White’s religious mania in Carrie (1976) and Joan Crawford’s violent histrionics in Mommie Dearest (1981).
In an uncomfortable alliance with Mommie Dearest, the types of films most willing to go there with parent-on-child violence can be classified as camp—Flowers in the Attic (1987, 2014), anyone?—or black comedy. Even the slashers of suburban satire try to keep the bloodshed outside of the nest. John Waters’s titular Serial Mom (1994) passes Mom and Dad’s good-parent test by killing in defense of her kids. The cannibal father in Bob Balaban’s Parents (1989) turns on 10-year-old Michael only after he refuses to keep cheerfully eating his “leftovers,” and, when forced to choose between her husband and son, Michael’s mother dies defending him. Mom and Dad clearly draws influence from Parents tonally while upping the ante, allowing parents to inflict the carnage on their offspring that their predecessors merely attempted.
The generic titles of many of these films—Mom and Dad, Parents, The Stepfather—invite us to read them as capturing some timeless, elemental struggle. A single word draws a through-line from Nicolas Cage chasing a child actor with a Sawzall, to Cronos devouring his children: “Dad.” Films about intergenerational conflict, however, are subject to a strange paradox: they simultaneously feel timeless and instantly dated. A mere five years after it was shot, Mom and Dad reads as a time capsule from when it was filmed. Moreover, it seems to have anticipated this. Like its parent characters in their more lucid moments, the film periodically turns to the mirror to contemplate its own decay.
“Does anybody know what this means? Anyone? Bueller? No?”
Having confiscated a student’s iPhone and written “PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE” in block letters on the board, Carly’s homeroom teacher (Joseph D. Reitman) explains products with a “predetermined, limited lifespan,” designed to “become unfashionable or nonfunctional in a certain amount of time,” not pausing to reflect on why no one laughed at his Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) joke: his supposedly cool movie reference is now older than most of his students. When the student protests that her phone is “the new one,” a wonderfully smug Reitman gloats, “You are dexterously missing my point and making it at exactly the same time”—unaware that he has just committed a similar blunder. He elaborates on the upside of planned obsolescence as infected parents begin to crowd at every school entrance: “Without getting rid of the old, you might never embrace the new.”
While the teacher’s lecture about the natural order is about to be horrifyingly reversed, Taylor’s choice of planned obsolescence as a framing device recognizes the brief half-life of youth and cool—both for the characters and for the film’s depictions of teenagers. Kendall is fulfilling her assigned role when she asks her daughter to stop “Facebooking,” earning an eyeroll from Carly while she peruses Instagram. In a slighter later version of this movie, however, we would expect Carly to be on TikTok and taunting Kendall with “OK, boomer”—a phrase which the passage of time is already turning to ash in our mouths. Ironically, in films about the young versus the old, the youthful characters are the first to show their age.
The parent cohort of Mom and Dad, however, is clearly fighting against the threat of their own irrelevance. “They need you less and less,” Kendall laments about her children to a bygone acquaintance—and implied old flame—before she proposes that she return to her design career at his firm. He rejects her. After Zumba, Kendall’s friend, Jenna, confesses looking at her daughter’s nubile body and thinking, “One day those tits are gonna drop, you little whore.” In the most signature Cage moment of the film, Brent rages spectacularly against the dying of the light when he takes a sledgehammer to a pool table while singing the “Hokey Pokey,” as if even this private anguish over his stolen youth has been colonized by Raffi. At this point, none of them has encountered the mysterious static signal, transmitted by their own electronic devices, that makes them want to murder their children. (Suddenly, it’s the kids’ turn to worry about screen time.) Even before they’re activated by the static, however, the parents of Mom and Dad are bonded to the tech they resent: both are defined by their inevitable obsolescence.
While Mom and Dad is not the first film to feature a technoplague (see Pontypool  or Cell ), the use of internet signals and TV static as vectors for filicidal urges feels particularly pointed. Before attempting to beat Carly’s boyfriend, Damon, to a pulp, Brent has the audacity to lecture him about “the things you’ve seen on the internet!” He rattles off a colorful list of sexual configurations, not pausing to reflect that: 1. He’s wringing his hands over the corruption of youth while threatening a child with unspeakable violence, and 2. Earlier in the film, he contracted his murderous urges while watching porn on his desktop at work. (It appears that Tipper Gore was right about everything but the at-risk generation.)
The fact that many of the parents are “activated” by the static while watching the news also gestures to the film’s 2016 production date. Mom and Dad isn’t an explicitly political film; however, as Carly and Josh tearfully beg their parents to recover themselves, one can’t help but see the parallels to the anguished editorials from grown children whose parents have been brainwashed by Fox news or radicalized by Facebook into believing in QAnon. While the film may appear to lavish more attention on the grievances of Kendall and Brent, it more subtly, but damningly, speaks to the anxieties of their children’s generations. After all, the youthful experiences that Brent and Kendall mourn so fiercely are the same ones they’re denying Carly and Josh.
If we use the actors’ ages and characters’ grade levels as a guide, the Ryan family has members in several camps of the contemporary generation wars: Brent is right on the cusp between the Baby Boom and Bust, Kendall is solidly Gen X, and Carly and Josh both fall within Gen Z. (The despised millennial is nowhere to be found.) The casting of Cage and Blair already resonates as an in-joke about their past as cult film It-kids. Over the scope of his career, Nic Cage’s roles have taken an increasingly hostile stance on fatherhood, from the misplaced paternal eagerness of Raising Arizona (1987) to the reluctant acceptance of The Family Man (2000) and Matchstick Men (2006), to the family-annihilating nihilism of Mom and Dad and Color Out of Space (2019). Blair, for her part, leaves behind a wild, celluloid youth in films like Cruel Intentions (1999), Down to You (2000), Storytelling (2001), and Highway (2002).
Like Cage and Blair, Brent and Kendall also carry a sense of history. The differences between their inner wounds reflect their gendered expectations of their lives, but also perhaps a slight generation gap. Only Brent is granted the nostalgia of flashbacks—comic scenes of a Raising Arizona-era Cage doppelgänger doing donuts in a car with his face pressed into a topless woman’s cleavage. During the pool table rant, he howls over the loss of “that kid” whose ambitions, body, and dreams have crumbled into ruin. Kendall’s life before Carly and Josh is a black box; she lurks in the background of Brent’s reminiscences like a latchkey kid who’s let herself in. While their anguish is real and consequential, it also comes from the privilege of experience. They lived their golden years. They had the house, the kids, and the white picket fence—a way of life that’s becoming increasingly inaccessible to the generations after them.
The Ryanses’ suburban fantasy, it’s worth noting, is also profoundly rooted in whiteness. In Mom and Dad, speaking non-white characters—notably Damon (Robert T. Cunningham), Carly’s Black boyfriend—stick out like the proverbial raisins in milk. While Damon’s race is never commented on directly, Brent’s intense aversion to Damon and Carly’s loaded retorts—“I know why you don’t want me to see him!”—give later brawls the feeling of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? reimagined as a death match. Damon is the only young character to be attacked by a non-parent, as Brent and Kendall periodically beat him into unconsciousness, fishhook him through the cheek with a clothes hanger, and toss him down a flight of stairs. Damon is also the only youth in the film with a non-intact nuclear family and a father who routinely beats him (“Don’t do this again,” Damon moans, thinking his static-addled dad is simply drunk again), details that feel like projections of white families who treat his presence in their neighborhood with suspicion. Among the adults, we have the family’s Chinese housekeeper Sun-Yi (Sharon Gee) who proceeds to clean the kitchen after gutting her daughter Lisa (Adin Steckler) on the Ryanses’ linoleum. “[Josh is] fine,” she soothes Kendall over the phone while mopping up Lisa’s blood. “I make him lunch.” Kendall and Brent seek a life of pleasure and freedom over their children’s dead bodies. For Sun-Yi, there’s no such escape. Now she has to mother someone else’s child.
But what of the children? Carly and Josh fit into their parents’ lives first as realizations of their suburban ideals, then as symbols of their disappointment. The adults in Mom and Dad anticipate their kids’ eventual comeuppance when they find themselves on the other end of the cycle (“One day those tits are gonna drop, you little whore”), but, once the widespread rampage starts, there’s no guarantee that Carly, Josh, and their cohorts will live long enough to be disillusioned. While they’re not accustomed to their parents chasing them with a Sawzall, young people like Carly and Josh—having already witnessed the aftermath of 9/11, endless wars in the Middle East, the Great Recession, and a mounting climate crisis—are arguably used to the idea of their futures being imperiled by the decisions of their elders. As he tries to make sense of the mob of parents surrounding the campus, Carly’s homeroom teacher reminds us of the horrors of being a modern child when he asks, “Why are the buses here? This isn’t a fucking bomb scare.” For Carly and Josh, having bomb-scare procedures and active shooter drills is part of a standard education. They have probably contemplated the possibility of dying at school-just not at the hands of their parents.
Parents are supposed to want to protect their children. In a CNN broadcast Kendall watches at the hospital, a guest expert (Grant Morrison, in a cameo role) claims that “any parent would rush out in front of a speeding car, or an oncoming train, or even a wild animal to save their child.” This primal instinct, moreover, is assumed to guide the priorities of civilized society. In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman famously writes that the “Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmic beneficiary of every political intervention.” It’s no wonder, then, that the expert speculates that the attacks must be caused by a “biological weapon” wielded by “someone [who] wants to wipe us out.” If you can “reverse” the hard-wired human instinct to protect one’s young, “you wouldn’t have to wipe us out, because we ourselves would be wiping out our own future.” While his bioweapon theory fits neatly into the rhetorical legacy of the War on Terror, the expert frames the filicidal epidemic as the flip of a switch, rather than the acceleration of a process already in motion.
Mom and Dad is an absurd magnification of Gen Z’s fears as they inherit a dying planet and unclear prospects. Of course, they love their parents. And their parents love them. But the parents may not understand why their children indict them for their place in a broader social fabric. “I think it’s horrible, what’s happening,” says one blood-soaked father on the broadcast news. “But for you, it was exactly right.” So what if every other parent comes to the same conclusion? Similarly, the spectacle of a crazed Brent and Kendall laughing as they asphyxiate their children with gas captures a funhouse-mirror version of betrayal voiced by Greta Thunberg in her address to the UN Climate Change Summit:
How dare you!…You say that you hear us and understand the urgency, but no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that because if you really understood the situation, and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil.
Like a Peter Singer thought experiment on meth, Mom and Dad takes the impersonal violence of policy, and the slow violence of eco-catastrophe, and literalizes them within the home. (The arrival of Brent’s elderly and equally homicidal parents would seem to spread around the accountability, but they’re never treated as viable threats. Brent kills both of them en route to taking out his kids: the revenge of the sandwich generation.)
Though the film makes broad social failures into personal ones, however, it isn’t straightforwardly condemnatory. In the final scene, with both parents securely bound to a pipe in the basement, Carly and Josh clearly still want everything to return to normal. “I love you, Dad,” croaks Josh through his tears, seconds after Brent thrashes wildly to free himself and resume his attack. In spite of everything, he, like Thunberg, doesn’t want to believe that his parents are evil. “We want to trust you,” says a stone-faced Carly, parroting an earlier line from Kendall. “But you don’t make it easy.”
Mom and Dad ends in that basement, mid-frame and mid-sentence. Brent gets the last word on the joys of parenting: “…sometimes we…sometimes we…JUST. WANT. TO—.” Taylor’s film isn’t interested in cures, answers, or reconciliation. But seeing Brent’s feral intensity through the eyes of his children emphasizes the asymmetry of their conflict. Josh hit Brent with a rubber ball. Brent tried to hit him with an axe. Ironically, his cowering kids are the only ones who can see the vitality and power that he claims they stole from him. In this way, despite the film’s non-resolution, Mom and Dad reminds us of the wildly different stakes of the conflict between young and old.
Parents fear who their children may become. But children fear their parents just as they are.