Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mercy (2014)

Following a violent incident, young George’s (Chandler Riggs) beloved grandmother Mercy (Shirley Knight) has been brought into a care home for the elderly, because George, his brother Buddy (Joel Courtney), and his mother Rebecca (Frances O’Connor) live toe far away from the Appalachian family home to care for her.

Things have to change a year later, though, when various “incidents” get Mercy thrown out of the home. So, Rebecca and her sons move into the old family home Rebecca left (or is it fled?) when she was eighteen to take care of a Mercy who is barely more than a vegetable following a stroke, bad care by George’s uncle Lanning (Mark Duplass), and the dubious decision of the home to keep the old lady drugged up to the gills.

However, something just isn’t right at all with Mercy. Slowly, George unravels hints and suggestions of the family’s past - the curious suicide by axe of his grandfather, the honeymoon camping trip of his aunt that left her husband dead and hers raving mad, and the strangely two-faced nature of Mercy, whom George felt closer to than his own mother when she was still well, but who showed cruelty and perhaps even worse things towards others he never noticed when he was younger. So, it might not be the best idea when George replaces his grandma’s knock-out drugs with saline solution.

Peter Cornwell’s adaptation of a Stephen King story (with a bit of Lovecraftian terminology – though Mythos fans might be a bit perturbed by the curious choice of Mythos god for the function it has in the plot - as well as quite a bit more Appalachian folklore thrown in that reminded me of the way Manly Wade Wellman used these things) is a pleasantly straight-forward piece of horror, telling a simple story focussed on theme, mood, and character, and eschewing showiness for most of the film’s running time. It’s not at all what I would have expected from the director of Haunting in Connecticut, seeing as it lacks all the annoying trends I loathe most in contemporary mainstream horror – the fixation on loud noises, the useless jump scares and so on – opting for an emphasis on mood and characterisation instead, letting a fine acting ensemble, calm direction, and meaningful landscape shots do a lot of the work of creeping the audience out.

Cornwell’s direction isn’t without style,  but it’s a style used to emphasise the story and the film’s thematic interests in family and love as the cause of emotional turmoil as well as a safe haven from these things, and the point where both sides of the equation become ambiguous. With this approach Cornwell manages to sell even the more preposterous plot developments during the last third of the film, convincing at least this viewer to take on a bit of George’s still child-like view of reality. In this context, I also think it’s very much in the film’s favour – making it more convincing as well as more effective - how easily it manages to portray George as intelligent, resourceful – as well as in possession of an imaginary friend who just might be a dead girl or perhaps something a little different - yet really a child, with all the lack of direct power and agency as well as information about the more sordid parts of his family history this implies, making his situation all the worse because he really can’t expect anyone to believe the nature of what’s going on, nor be sure he has the information he should have to survive.

Once the proverbial shit hits the fan, Cornwell also shows himself to be quite adept at classic suspense techniques, as well as totally unafraid to show and do things that sound silly on paper but feel completely right for the world of the film, where everything that goes bump in the night truly exists: cursed books, evil powers of the outer dark, sin-hunting haints, pacts with horrid forces and ghosts are all part of the film’s world, without the whole affair ever feeling just a bit too much. There is, of course, an obvious parallel to fairy tales and a child’s view of the world, and who am I to disagree with a film that mixes these particular ways to look at and explain the world with a sober perspective on the horrors and pleasures of family and love, and the way these are all too often intermingled?

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