Written by: Daniel McDonald
I was telling a fellow “film examiner” (just not big on the words reviewer or worse, critic) that what we choose to do is quite deceptively difficult. Watch a film and either like, love or hate it in print. There is so very much preparation and seriously difficult work in simply getting a film made. Then after the creative forces release their “Cinematic Newborn” to the world, the amount of harm or good for it can depend on quite a bit of sometimes frustrating, uncontrollable elements.
Promotion and Marketing poorly or worse falsely executed creating unrealistic audience expectations, which this year’s IT COMES AT NIGHT proved beyond a doubt (not saying it was an unsuccessful film, but it was marketed much like Brian Bertino’s Creature Feature MONSTER, creating a completely – in my humble opinion – undeserved backlash: I’m talking actual “Boo-ing” at the end credit role.)
Then there are those of us, who choose to share with you our observations and opinions, which, while hopefully fair, might still not be what the filmmakers were hoping for or trying to achieve.
Finally comes what must be one of a creative team’s biggest frustrations – Cinematic Coincidence.
Which brings us to the subject of today’s discussion. Just last week I discussed an excellently crafted low budget thriller (I don’t think I made it to print deadline but it was a near rave) from 2010 called (as it turns out, rather unfortunately) FROZEN.
Who would have expected that a mere three years later, the most popular animated film of all time would carry that moniker as well?
As I said then, I can only imagine the number of freaked out parents dealing with little creatures shrieking “YOU GOT THE WRONG MOVIE!!” – which, if anything planted seeds of negativity for this barely marketed or released little jewel that FROZEN (2010) very much was.
Which brings us to the topic of today’s discussion, a 2014 film completely unknown to yours truly until it popped up on Netflix, MERCY. I actually enjoy knowing little to nothing about films when seeing them for the first time, as I think it gives the filmmakers a fairer “playing field.” However, given my decade long (and getting longer and uglier by the minute) diatribe against the “deception for dollars” mis-marketing and financially gutless non-release tactics of a Hollywood I don’t even want to recognize any longer, I seem to be (a bit more often than not) being less harsh when talking about almost any film (I said ALMOST).
MERCY is the story of a rural family (absolutely gorgeous vistas and imagery courtesy of cinematographer Byron Shah). I must say the film looks wonderful, an odd sense of low key dread in the simplicity of a little farm house and wide open spaces, it’s clear Mr. Shah knows what he’s doing, if some others aren’t quite as lucky. Reza Safinia’s score has some very effective moments, but more often than not, you can practically see Jason Blum over her shoulder saying “SCARIER, SCARIER!”
The film opens with a young woman sitting at a table in said farmhouse. We see a very odd sickly looking man walk up behind her holding an axe, after a moment of real tension, he quickly flips the axe around and splits his head in half splattering mother and child with R rated brain matter and blood (hence part one of the clever little title).
The scene is effectively edited by Toby Yates and William Yeh with above average FX courtesy of Justin Raleigh.
We then jump to the present day, where a Grandmother (the brilliant Shirley Knight) who is an older incarnation of the woman from the opening, is in failing, sometimes mentally violent health. Her daughter-in-law and two sons (a terrifically impressive trio of talent – Frances O Connor of CONJURING 2, Mark Duplass of CREEP and THE LAZARUS EFFECT and Dylan Mc Dermott of AMERICAN HORROR STORY are all returning to take care of Knight since her vicious attacks have caused her nursing home to reject her.
Arriving with O’Connor are her two sons, Chandler Riggs (THE WALKING DEAD) and Joel Courtney (SUPER 8). Riggs’ character seems to have the strongest connection with Knight, who in her vicious unstable moments keeps trying to warn him of someone or…. something that is coming.
To spell out much more of the fairly predictable narrative, would do more harm than good. At a brisk 78 minutes, quite a few recognizable supernatural tropes make themselves very apparent, but as I’ve said in other projects I’ve covered, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Tropes, by their very nature exist because previously they were effective at spicing up and at the same time familiarizing whatever they’re included in. Sometimes it’s nice to skip the cinematic filet mignon, and enjoy cinematic mac & cheese (title PT. 2). Unfortunately, in 2016 a thriller produced as a Netflix original family drama/ home invasion thriller starring James Wolk (ZOO) premiered. It was titled MERCY, and while it was nothing above the Netflix norm, it basically helped Universals diffidence completely wipe the 2014 film from viewer’s minds… the CURSE OF FROZEN STRIKES AGAIN?
Why Blumhouse produced this Matt Greenberg adaptation of Stephen King’s short story GRAMMA, and then Universal decided to basically discard it seems to me to be more about write-off ability than effectiveness of product. Granted, director Peter Cornwall’s relatively limited resume (mostly in television) didn’t by any means knock this one out of the park, but it was far from a strikeout.
One final note that I’m sure will piss the hell out of some readers. I watched THE WALKING DEAD religiously for two full seasons. But between the visceral, kinetic masterpieces that were Zack Snyder’s re-imagining of DAWN OF THE DEAD and Danny Boyle and Juan Carlos Cardinello’s 28 DAYS LATER and 28 MONTHS LATER, my zombie goals (ghouls?) had been …uh well fed (did you see what I did there?).
I did however truly enjoy and respect the acting of that amazing original cast, even young Chandler Riggs who was refreshingly “non- Hollywood kid-ish.”
Well in MERCY (2014), even though the acting was better than average across the board, Mr. Riggs basically has a very challenging task of carrying the movie on his teenage shoulders. Once again (though not as well guided by Mr. Cornwall as his WALKING DEAD directors) he gives a subtle, layered, realistically grounded performance as the focal Grandson.
All in all, I say sit back and enjoy a fine bowl of cinematic comfort food…I. J. S.