OPINION: ‘Matriarch’ asks questions about childhood trauma but has no answers


Courtesy photo by 20th Digital Studios

Going home as an adult can feel abnormal, especially when you initially left for your own survival.

This homecoming can also reveal the abnormal as seen in Ben Steiner’s body horror film “Matriarch.” It tells the story of Laura (Jemima Rooper), a businesswoman plagued by some mysterious illness, who is strong-armed by her mother, Celia (Kate Dickie), into going back to her childhood home after Laura overdoses on cocaine.

The sense of mystery surrounding Laura’s illness is captivating from the jump. Because the film starts in the middle of the things, there is no room for guessing.

The film is at its strongest when its focus is on the human side of issues. The relationship between Laura and Celia is uncomfortable and thrilling. It is as if one of them could have an outburst at any moment.

Laura seems to revert to a more immature version of herself when she comes home, shown when she reads through her mother’s diary. Celia, on the other hand, undermines and repeats the emotional abuse she inflicted upon her daughter that made her leave in the first place.

Rooper and Dickie handle this dynamic extraordinarily well. Dickie has this animalistic and narcissistic energy lying in wait under her words, which pairs well with Rooper’s internalized anger at a mother that she felt never loved her.

As “Matriarch” builds to unveil its more supernatural elements, it begins to crumble. It’s as if the film stops trusting itself in the final act and tactlessly makes its way to the end.

Celia is revealed to be the matriarch (shocking) of the village and is essentially keeping everyone young forever by trapping a mother earth like figure in her garden. This creature also helped her conceive Laura and is her true mother.

This reveal works against how the film had been handling childhood trauma and the relationship between a mother and her child. The concept that everyone comes from and will return to a singular mother figure is interesting in principle but the execution here struggles to strike any balance between the physical and emotional natures of motherhood.

Celia is a physical mother. She has given birth and raised Laura on her own. Her role as matriarch in the town is highlighted by the fact that she is breastfeeding its residents in order to keep them alive. (Yeah…)

The creature should have been a foil for this, but her limited screen time says otherwise. Her physical appearance, which includes six breasts, implies that she engages in a similar form of mothering. She is far more interested in escaping Celia than helping Laura.

“Matriarch” is a quiet, folk horror that cares deeply about its themes but ultimately cannot commit to doing them any justice.