Director: Chris Sparling
Writer: Chris Sparling
Producer: Andrew Corkin, Robyn K. Bennett, Kyle Franke
Stars: James Wolk, Caitlin FitzGerald, Tom Lipinski, Dan Ziskie, Michael Godere, Michael Donovan, Dion Graham, Constance Barron
Four estranged brothers find their family home besieged by masked men attempting to get to their invalid mother.
Home invasion thrillers have their work cut out for them. In just the 12 months leading up to the Los Angeles Film Festival world premiere of “Mercy,” a different “Mercy” than the Chandler Riggs-starrer based on Stephen King’s “Gramma” (review here), North America saw the wide release or festival debut of “The Blood Lands” (aka “White Settlers”), “Tormented” (aka “Berkshire County”), “Crush the Skull,” “Naciye,” “Intruders,” and “Don’t Breathe.” Those are only a handful of examples from a pool of choices so deep it can create a flood.
Only “found footage” is more overexposed as a horror subgenre. If a home invasion thriller has any hope of fighting for favor from a fatigued audience, anything less than an absolute A game simply won’t do. Swimming against the overwhelming tide of similar films requires an inventive hook into the fiction that goes beyond standard psychological and physical terror.
“Mercy” has that hook. The film’s mixture of mystery and family drama provides contextual depth to the suspense, making for a gripping movie that is more than mere masked maniacs inciting panic in a quiet countryside home.
Grace Mitchell is dying. Dr. Turner presents Grace’s husband George with a curious black bag and urges him to end his wife’s suffering. George brusquely takes the bag before dismissing the doctor with a door in the face. Interlopers aren’t welcome here. This is a family matter to be discussed with George’s two sons TJ and Ronnie. See, Grace inherited a considerable sum of cash from her abusive first husband, and no one is making any decisions before determining what to do about the money.
Complicating things is black sheep Brad and his bad boy brother Travis, Grace’s other two sons from that previous marriage. With Brad’s girlfriend Melissa tagging along as an uninvited guest, the four half-brothers have been summoned for a conclave with George where Grace’s fate will finally be decided.
With one side of the family angling to cut the other out of the will, bad blood is boiling. That pot has to be put on a back burner when a group of masked men burns the word “mercy” into the front lawn. Someone else has taken an interest in Grace’s illness, and they are committed to ensuring she receives whatever it is inside Dr. Turner’s little black bag. In fact, they are so committed to their cause that they are willing to kill whoever dares get in their way.
Money-related motives don’t make the men pondering Grace’s predicament particularly likable. But the tension in “Mercy” comes from the mystery surrounding what is happening and why, rather than worrying whether or not anyone specific will survive. The harrowing ordeal at hand is of secondary import to exactly how it will play out while wondering what revelations wait at the finish line.
Keeping the characters from being written off as completely unsympathetic are fine performances from familiar faces. Key cast members have appeared in top-tier television shows including “House of Cards” (Dan Ziskie), “Mad Men” (James Wolk), and “Masters of Sex” (Caitlin FitzGerald). Those pedigrees contribute greatly to everyone’s passionate portrayals and the emotional credibility brought to a sincere euthanasia theme.
*I wrote in my notes to mention how much Tom Lipinski, who plays Travis, resembles a slender Josh Brolin. Then I Googled both actors’ names together and discovered that Lipinski already played a younger version of Brolin in “Labor Day.”
“Slow burn” doesn’t fully fit as a description of the film’s suspense. “Mercy” holds a steady flame that sometimes doesn’t burn at all, yet its fire flickers with untouchably hot intensity and that understated drama is transfixing.
Midway through, the movie resets and fills in blanks by replaying previous events from another point of view. This isn’t a tactic to cheat, fool, or confuse anyone out of understanding the story as it moves forward and backward concurrently.
Such cinematic style choices actually demonstrate respect for the viewer’s intelligence. Backstory unfolds in bits, partly to foster later payoffs, but more as a method of presenting exposition organically. The layered way the script parses out details doesn’t feel like characters delivering lines for the sake of force-feeding information to the audience. There is a gradual build taking place that finds a natural route in getting to the climax.
The denouement is not without its difficulties. Although the twist is not what anyone should expect, it comes with some clumsiness that doesn’t make for the smoothest conclusion, particularly when looking back in retrospect. Not everyone will consider “Mercy” clever, or even engaging, though it is far harder to argue against its standing as home invasion horror with unique purpose in its plot, which is enough to make it memorable in an overstuffed subgenre.
Netflix has a worthwhile companion film for Mike Flanagan’s similar-veined “Hush” (review here). I just wouldn’t recommend a double feature. As fresh as “Mercy” feels for now, we could all stand to put more space between our home invasion thrillers, lest we risk finally unseating “found footage” from its overdone throne.
Review Score: 75