LA Film Fest 2016: Mercy, by David Bax
Early on, Chris Sparling’s home invasion horror movie Mercy is going to try to trick you into thinking that it’s about family or faith or the sticky subject of euthanasia. But those are just some of the first red herrings in a movie that’s full of them. As the bodies pile up, the lenses flare and the twists build to a final, preposterous reveal, it becomes clear that this is pure pulp. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, though.
Two sets of half-brothers (same mother, different fathers) convene on the rural farmhouse where they grew up. Their mother (Constance Barron) is on her deathbed, bringing together the all but estranged sons from her late first husband (Tom Lipinski and James Wolk) with the younger men (Michael Donovan and Michael Godere) from her current husband (Dan Ziskie, bringing some of the same gentle menace he did to his opportunistic developer character from Treme). Brad (Wolk) has brought a woman with him (Masters of Sex‘s Caitlin FitzGerald), who serves as our surrogate clueless to the bitter history of the family and the contents of a black medical bag a mysterious doctor dropped off with a plea for mercy.
If you’re concerned about the legality of euthanasia in New York state, where the movie takes place, don’t waste your time. Writer and director Sparling is uninterested in that question, though he certainly could have found room for it in Mercy‘s glacial first act. Perhaps the director means to establish a tone of eerie tension with his too slow and quiet early scenes but all he’s really doing is dilating the amount of time his exposition and rising action should require to unfold.
There is one upside to the film’s lethargic beginning: When things do hit the fan, they do so thrillingly, violently and all at once. The sudden disappearance of certain inhabitants of the house and the appearance of new, masked and hooded figures is as initially terrifying and disorienting for us as it is for our protagonists. Then, Mercy reaches another level when it doubles back, showing us the same events from the point of view of the other characters, allowing Sparling to answer some of the questions that are dangling while inserting more.
This middle section of the film is its highlight and the best showcase for Sparling’s talents as a director. The second strand of the fractured chronology plays out almost completely without dialogue and is all the more tense for it. Once the timelines converge, the strained shocker of a resolution proves that, while Mercy has been clever, it hasn’t really been smart. But who needs smart when you’ve got a good popcorn flick in front of you?