LAFF 2016 Review: MERCY
95% of all horror movie villains wearing masks tend to go after women, so it's interesting that writer/director Chris Sparling has come up with a very male-centric group of protagonists for Mercy, a home invasion thriller that premiered at the LA Film Festival and will be debuting on Netflix later this year. The plot concerns a dying woman whose husband and sons (four of them, two from an earlier marriage and two from the current one) are bickering over her inheritance - each of them have financial problems that can be put behind them with that money. The ones from the first marriage, Brad (James Wolk) and Travis (Tom Lipinski) might be written out of the will entirely, and as she's not actually dead yet there's a discussion of putting her out of her misery, pretending it's really to ease her pain but really just to get that sweet cash. So when two masked men show up and seemingly want to kill everyone inside (including the mom), Brad and Travis assume it's their half-brothers Ronnie and TJ, making sure that all of the money goes to them.
Of course, if it was that easy they wouldn't need masks, right? Therein lies one of the film's key issues - perhaps a rather dim viewer might have been shocked if the masks came off in the last five minutes and saw the hero's own (half) brothers' faces behind them, but I'm not even sure that'd be the case. For one thing, Brad even flat out says that "it must be Ronnie and TJ", almost as soon as the strangers appear - it'd be a really bizarre "twist" if their first guess was right (especially since there is a noticeable height difference between the two men we see whereas Ronnie and TJ were about the same size). So in addition to the usual thrills, we also have to wonder if the brothers ARE actually involved and just sitting on the sidelines (making it more like You're Next), or if they've already met their fates - in which case, who exactly is out there trying to kill our heroes?
Ambitiously, Sparling answers this question at around the halfway point, after a character is seemingly killed. At this point we rewind to the beginning of the narrative and see things from the POV of the villains, which is an intriguing concept but doesn't quite fit in this particular story. See, the most interesting element that Sparling introduced was the "brothers at odds" thing - the tension is quite thick and there's obviously no love lost between them (even Brad and Travis seem to have their own problems, independent of their half-brothers). We learn that their dad was an abusive asshole whose death might not have been as "accidental" as they were told, so there's enough mistrust and resentment to go around, giving the film an identity even if the killers were motive-free strangers like in Hush or Ils. But in order for his attempt at a twist (or at least, a wrinkle) to work, Sparling has to keep the "bad" brother pair out of the story after like fifteen minutes - I can't help but wonder if it would have been more interesting if they came back to the house (having just went to the local bar or something) during another round of attacks and everyone had to work together to survive/figure out who was trying to kill them. Ditto for the dad, who has even less of a presence - it was such an unusual dynamic for a horror movie, and I was quite disappointed at how minimal an impact it ultimately had on the action.
(Then again, the more interactions between the actors there are, the more obvious it is that the casting people really botched things, since Brad and Travis should be considerably older than Ronnie and TJ seeing as they come from the mother's first marriage, but if anything it's more the other way around. In fact, the actor playing Ronnie is nine years OLDER than the one playing Brad!)
There is also the matter of the "black bag", which is left by a doctor at the beginning of the film and is said to "give her mercy" (hey, the title!), though there's obviously something unusual about it because it's spoken of only in generic terms and every time discussion turns to it (i.e. a point where someone might explain what it actually IS), there's an interruption. Ultimately we learn what it is/does, and while it's interesting in itself, it's not enough to make up for the obscure way it was spoken of throughout the movie. The best thing Sparling could have done is just introduce it early on and never mention it again, letting us kind of forget about it until the end when it would come into play, but there are like three conversations about it that serve little purpose other than to force the audience to ask "Why are they being so vague?". It'd be like if the briefcase's contents in Pulp Fiction actually had some major plot significance at the very end - since it doesn't, it's fine that we hear things like "Is that what I think it is?" and such because it's part of the gag. Not so much when someone has to unnaturally talk like that just so the audience can go "Ohhhhh..." in the final minutes.
But on the other hand, I can't help but appreciate that the filmmaker was trying to mix these things up a bit. There have been a lot of movies like this over the past few years, and like their close cousin the slasher, they follow a bit of a standard template - any attempt to color outside those lines is admirable, even if it doesn't really work. And it's not like the film is a total disaster; Sparling delivers some solid thrills and scares that do the sub-genre proud, including a pretty terrific bit where one assailant has managed to perch himself outside a second floor window. He also offers some of those great subtle background scares, where we see a blurry thing in the background and assume it's just a tree or a chair or whatever until it walks out of frame. And I can't get into the specifics because spoilers, but there's a bit near the end that builds to a pretty great "oh shit" moment (if you've seen the movie, you probably know what I'm referring to - it's when a character attempts to take on his tormentors). Also, while most of it is redundant or even confusing in spots, the "rewind to show you things from the killers' POV" sequence rewards sharp-eyed viewers, showing a killer in a hiding spot that you MIGHT have seen the first time around.
Long story short, it's a bit of a mess - the intentions are good, but too much narrative cohesion is sacrificed in order to pull the rug out from under the viewer's feet, making the film needlessly and distractingly opaque. You can almost see Sparling watching one of the other movies (The Strangers, for example) and thinking how interesting it'd be to kill someone off halfway through and then go back to see it from the bad guys' perspective, without realizing his movie already had enough to set it apart from the others with its "protect the woman who is about to die anyway" element. Add in some questionable shaky-cam/rapid-fire editing during the more hectic scenes and you're left with a thriller that all too often leaves you raising your hands to scratch your head instead of cover your eyes.