Doomsday Mom is a Lifetime true crime film, based on the disappearance of 16 year-old Tylee Ryan and 7 year-old J.J. Vallow and the subsequent arrest of their mother, Lori Vallow, and her new husband, Chad Daybell. Both Lori and Chad were heavily involved in the Doomsday movement, the belief that the end times were quickly approaching and that only the righteous would be saved. (Hence the title, Doomsday Mom.) Apparently, before the children disappeared, Lori and Chad had said that they had become demonically-possessed zombies. While the police were investigating the disappearances of Tylee and J.J., they also uncovered evidence that suggested that Lori and Chad may have been involved in several more deaths and attempted murders, including those of Lori’s ex-husband and her brother and Chad’s first wife.
It’s a disturbing story but it’s also one that hasn’t been resolved yet. Both Lori and Chad are currently in prison, awaiting trial. While the state of Idaho has ruled the Lori is not mentally competent enough to stand trial for murdering her children, the state of Arizona has still indicted her for attempting to kill one of her ex-husbands. Meanwhile, Chad will be facing the death penalty when his trial finally begins. Because neither has been convicted of any crime, they are still considered to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. If they are found guilty, there’s still the question of how many of the mysterious deaths that occurred within their orbit were the result of foul playe and how many were just coincidences. (Lori’s brother, for instance, died at a rather convenient time for Lori but everyone still seems to agree that he had been in poor health long before Lori even met Chad.) There’s also the question of whether or not Lori is actually legally insane or if she’s just faking it to get out of being sent to death row.
That proves to be a bit of a problem for Doomsday Mom, which is a film that suggests a lot of things but can’t actually come out and take a definite stand on anything, beyond the fact that Lori and Chad were a creepy couple who believed in some strange things. Though the film clearly believes that both Lori and Chad are guilty, it still has to try to maintain some sort of ambiguity. Hence, we learn that people have died but we never learn much about the circumstances of their death. We learn that Tylee was rebelling against her mother’s strict rules but we don’t learn much details about those rules, beyond Lori insisting that Tylee stay home to babysit so that Lori could go to church whenever she felt like it. We don’t see much of Chad’s first wife, nor do we learn much about his family.
Perhaps most importantly, we don’t really learn much about Lori and Chad’s doomsday beliefs, beyond the fact that they were convinced the world was ending and that the people around them were being possessed by demons. The film suggests that both of them were motivated by their own ego. Lori and Chad enjoyed being mini-celebs in the Doomsday movement. But, by not exploring how they came to have such beliefs in the first place, it’s hard not to feel that the film is refusing to give us some very important clues to understanding how all of these murders could have occurred in the first place. Presumably because the question of Lori’s mental competence is still in the air, the film cannot take a clear stand on whether Lori really believes all of the things that she says or if she’s just using all of the doomsday talk as a cover for her own selfishness. As often when happens when a film about a true crime case is rushed into production, Doomsday Mom often leaves the viewer with a number of unanswered questions.
On a positive note, both Lauren Lee Smith and Marc Blucas are chilling in the roles of Lori and Chad. Smith, in particular, is frightening as she switches from being a normal, overprotective mother to a wild-eyed religious fanatic, seemingly at random. Playing the role of the concerned grandparents of the missing children, Patrick Duffy and Linda Purl do a great job of capturing their desperation as they start to realize that, despite all of their hopes and efforts, they will probably never see their grandchildren again. The scene were they learn the fate of Tylee and J.J. is poignantly portrayed by both Duffy and Purl.
I always have a slightly problem with films like Doomsday Mom. I’m not a fan of rushing films into production to take advantage of a tragedy still being in the news. But Doomsday Mom is a well-acted and well-directed film, even if it can’t provide us with the answers that we may be looking for.