Hilary Swank, a recipient of two Oscars for her roles in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” adds a touch of sophistication to “The Good Mother,” a film that blends elements of noir with a murder mystery set in the gritty landscape of 2016 Albany. This backdrop coincides with the rise of illegal fentanyl and synthetic opioids, which are supplanting prescription painkillers as the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States. However, the film’s opening death is a result of a firearm murder.
The victim, Michael Bennings, portrayed mostly through flashbacks, is a junkie, drug dealer, and small-time thief, brought to life by Madison Harrison. The story is penned by Madison Harrison and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte. Swank assumes the role of Marissa, Michael’s mother, who works as a journalist at the Times Union newspaper. She attempts to drown her own anguish regarding Michael and her husband’s previous death in copious amounts of alcohol.
During the funeral, Marissa crosses paths with Paige (Olivia Cooke), Michael’s pregnant girlfriend. Despite a warning from her other son, Toby, who is a police officer in Albany, Marissa’s initial impulse is to strike Paige, disregarding Toby’s advice to let it go. Toby already has a potential suspect in mind: Ducky, Michael’s anxious best friend and fellow addict, portrayed by Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn.
It’s hardly a spoiler to note that a suspect implicated within the first 15 minutes of a movie is unlikely to be the true perpetrator. Furthermore, it’s unsurprising when Marissa and Paige, primarily Paige, take matters into their own hands, embarking on an ill-fated investigation. A witness to the crime (Norm Lewis) identifies the shooter as the driver of a white truck, an unidentified man with a distinct tattoo on his hand.
The narrative, which leaves Swank with limited actions beyond consuming large quantities of alcohol and wallowing, develops rather sluggishly, failing to generate significant suspense even when Paige confronts a suspect whose identity has been foreshadowed throughout the film. This could be disappointing for viewers with some cinematic experience.
Initially known as “Mother’s Milk,” the film’s title was changed to its current one, drawing from a term used to describe a mixture of heroin and fentanyl that plagues Albany in the storyline. Motherhood themes deeply permeate the screenplay: Marissa is a mother of two sons, Paige is an expectant mother, and Toby’s wife Gina is attempting to conceive. The exact identity of the “good” mother in this film, within a support group of tormented mothers and mothers-to-be, is open to interpretation, embracing a wealth of moral ambiguity.
This ambivalence, though not appearing as a purposeful enigma but rather as unintended uncertainty, can be frustrating. Equally vexing is the movie’s conclusion, which embraces ambiguity in an attempt to prompt contemplation about the intricate boundary between right and wrong, justice and mercy. “The Good Mother” proposes that maternal love isn’t always easily deciphered, especially when seeking revenge or closure is an arduous endeavor.