The home invasion thriller is nothing new, especially nowadays. To really make your mark on it, you have to switch things up a bit, throw a wrench into the narrative works. There’s something primal about the image of ski-masked intruders darkening doorways or hiding in corners that will always be effective, but for a movie about them to stand out, it needs an extra kick. Writer-director Chris Sparling’s Mercy, which premiered at LA Film Fest last weekend, certainly shifts the subgenre by adding social satire, family dysfunction, and a timeline shift straight out of Chris Nolan.
The film takes place around a secluded farmhouse wherein a dying mother rests. Her husband George (Dan Ziskie) and their two sons, Ronnie and TJ (Michael Godere and Michael Donovan) are keen to collect the huge amount of money the mother has from a previous marriage. There is the added problem, however, that the previous marriage produced two other sons, the ex-con Travis (Tom Lipinski) and the seemingly normal Brad (James Wolk–you know, Mad Men‘s Bob Benson). They would also like a piece of the inheritance, which George has managed to cut them out of. An outsider–Brad’s friend Melissa (Caitlin FitzGerald)–has no idea just how messed up and wrought the relationship between these half-brothers truly is.
It’s the making of a riff on Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories, but there’s another wrinkle: the mother belongs to a church that wants the family to administer a drug that will ease her suffering, essentially letting her pass away right away. Nobody wants this to happen for some reason, and Melissa–like us–are very confused about it. In the middle of the night, Brad is awakened by the sound of someone in the house. He, Travis, and Melissa investigate and find people with creepy-ass ski masks surrounding the house, trying to get in, and George, Ronnie, and TJ all missing? Could it be them? Could it be someone else? And what does all of it have to do with their dying mother?
This is the kind of movie where you don’t know what the hell is going on until you know what the hell is going on. Events play out from Brad, Travis, and Melissa’s point of view, trying to protect their mother (or make sure she doesn’t die until the will can be changed at least) and fortify the farmhouse, but at a certain point, we go back in time and see the same period from other characters’ perspective, which changes what we’ve just seen. There doesn’t seem to be anything supernatural at play, but you never know, right?
There are definite smacks of movies like The Strangers or Timecrimes in Mercy, but what it ultimately says about greed and family is rather more terrifying and troubling than any threat of violence. To Sparling’s credit, he’s able to paint a believable picture of the members of the family and how they like, dislike, trust, or distrust one another. At the same time, he makes the scenes of dread really full of tension, and he keeps the audience guessing what the outcome will be. Even if the ending isn’t necessarily satisfying, it’s a mystery that’s enjoyable as it unfolds.
At only a little over 80 minutes, Mercy gets just about as much mileage out of the premise and follow-through as is necessary. And unlike a lot of films at the festival, this one’s already been purchased by Netflix, so you can expect to see it there in the near future. This is a good Netflix evening movie for sure.
3 out of 5 canard-filled burritos