Brought together at their childhood home over their dying mother, an estranged family is thrust into a deadly fight for their own survival in a tense home invasion thriller.
Celebrating its World Premiere at the 2016 LA Film Festival, the home invasion thriller Mercy has a lot going for it. And on the flip-side, it also has far too many problems to go unnoticed or unmentioned.
Brothers Brad and Travis (James Wolk and Tom Lipinski) return to their rural home to basically have a pow-wow with their stepfather George (Dan Ziskie) and two half-brothers, TJ and Ronnie (Michael Donovan and Michael Godere), about the ailing mother (Constance Barron) that the boys all have in common. There is a lot of money at stake, and this meeting is apparently to define how these final days will go down… and exactly when. But there is plenty of animosity between the family members, as they all have plans for their piece of the estate. Along for the ride is Brad’s girlfriend Melissa (Caitlin FitzGerald) — a clear outsider to these proceedings. Personalities clash. Harsh words are exchanged. And things take a violent and unexpected turn when a group of masked intruders infiltrate the home in the middle of the night – but to what end?
The first half hour is all set-up, and I was absolutely enamored by the film’s masterful introduction of the characters and we quickly got a painful sense of the family’s strained and paranoid history. There is tension in their interactions, and tension in their isolation. This film sets the audience up for a very good time, but fails to hold on to that early, precious gift. Simply, I hate when films are unable to follow through, and that is the case with Mercy.
The fact that we’re witnessing acrimonious family discourse in a film is not new. What is unique and wonderful in Mercy, is the story idea that this is a stepfather to two of the boys, biological father to the other two, and that there has never been any love lost between any of them. And now they have to work together to overcome some great odds. This intimate and impressive portrait of a dysfunctional family is quickly forgotten as we move into a failing second and third act.
Performances were all nuanced and believable and worthy of praise. I believed this family and their messed-up dynamics. However, I was never quite certain if I bought everything that the brothers and their step/father were working toward – but that’s via no fault of the actors. Standout work goes to Dan Ziskie as patriarch George. Ziskie’s got a resume a mile long (for you House of Cards fans, he was former Vice President Jim Matthews a few seasons back). George’s contempt for his stepsons, his devotion to his real sons, and his dark intent throughout the film – make for an intriguing and stand-out performance from Ziskie. But again, the entire cast is truly in top form.
There’s a point in the film, perhaps 45 minutes in – where we go back in time to see all of these events from someone else’s point of view. And while I love seeing such things in film, and it’s always a genuine treat to see it work within what we already know – in Mercy, it basically became overbearing when a great majority of the movie was played over. In other words, the story did not move ahead – at all. And again, the continuity was spot-on, and seeing what was happening on the other side of the door – nifty, but ultimately – it got us nowhere.
Now, I’m all about tiny, seemingly inconsequential material items in film – which come back later to serve an important purpose. But I felt as though Mercy was far too heavy-handed when introducing such symbolic items. The way they were shot was too obvious. I realize that as an audience, the filmmakers have to play to a wide variety of movie-goers. But spoon-feeding does no one any good. Audiences prefer (at least I do) to be given some foreshadowing – enough that we’ll remember it (and be pleased by our own brilliance) when the time comes. I don’t want to immediately know that – “Oh, that’s important.” There’s a fine line in such things, and in Mercy, the filmmakers crossed it.
And I was actually confused by some key plot points. Were we meant to believe the black case (introduced in the very first scene) was for a more humane purpose, when the final reveal was that it could be used (or unused) for another, more malevolent purpose? Was it supposed to be something to throw us off? And the final payoff was nothing to write home about.
The film was beautifully shot – locations were shown with gorgeous, long and high shots of the vast woods. And the frequent surprises of the masked intruders in dark corners of the frame – perfect. But there were many moments in the darkness of the woods (certainly in some of the more action-packed sequences), where frankly I became confused as to what had just transpired. Eventually, I figured it out, but in the heat of the moment (many of the moments), the lighting (or lack thereof) in the film was just too dark. I feel as though I may have missed some things. On a good note, the initial shot of Brad approaching the tree-line of the mysterious woods – his flashlight illuminating the fall foliage – stunning and delicious.
The film’s more of a thriller, but there are many note-worthy “boo” moments and just creepy images. And again, the tension is definitely present when the film gets underway. If only it could have held on for the entire running time – my review may have been far more favorable.
The score by Phil Mossman (We Are What We Are and last year’s Cop Car) was lush and perfectly captured the cold autumn atmosphere, the isolation and the tension of the film.
Written and directed by Chris Sparling (writer/director of last year’s underwhelming The Atticus Institute), Mercy is definitely a step in a better direction, but not a triumph by any stretch of the imagination.
No release dates are yet available – whether theatrical, DVD or VOD. And frankly, it’s up in the air if you should give this a shot anyway. Know that you’ll get sucked in rather quickly and be warned that your initial intrigue and build-up of love will be torn to shreds by the film’s disappointing conclusion.