Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Tommy Bertelsen
Writer: Kristen Ruhlin
Producer: Cary Granat, Ed Jones, Darren Goldberg, Igor Pronin, Julia Zaytseva, Joel Michaely
Stars: Kristen Ruhlin, Lily Newmark, Ieva Seglina, Eileen Davies, Svetlana Ivannikova, Juris Strenga, Dainis Grube, Sophia Massa
A young mother experiencing signs of stigmata journeys to a remote convent to learn the truth about her haunting history.
Madeline hasn’t been back to her birthplace in Latvia since she was a child. Now a single mother, old wounds have to be ignored for Madeline to visit her father Frank on his deathbed in the family’s remote countryside home.
The only person possibly more uncomfortable with her return is Madeline’s estranged mother Yelena. The fact that Madeline brought along her young daughter Willow prompts additional cause for concern. Whatever went on between these women, silence speaks volumes about their uneasy emotional discomfort.
Madeline’s Memory Lane march takes another sour turn when a seemingly supernatural fall down a well triggers frightful flashbacks. Her situation worsens once again when Father Joseph comes to pray, igniting a sudden bout of apparent possession, during which Madeline develops bloody stigmata scars while violently attacking her daughter.
For Willow’s sake, the priest convinces Madeline to seek answers regarding her curious condition at the isolated Sisters of Mercy convent. While Mother Superior and another strict sister regularly send strange stares, Madeline befriends a young nun who warns her about the oddly locked bell tower. Not all is as it initially seems however, as the secret behind Madeline’s madness becomes but the first clue regarding the haunting truth of her hidden past.
If slow-burn Catholic creepiness doesn’t light your fire, you may want to think twice about “Welcome to Mercy.” Director Tommy Bertelsen’s moody melodrama is often as sleepy as it is spooky, with its stinginess for providing scares rivaled only by stubbornness to seed the story with sufficient suspense.
“Welcome to Mercy” drops breadcrumbs about Madeline’s mysterious background sparingly. This deliberate exclusion of exposition means to be a tension-building tactic. Except that small spark of “what’s really going on?” enticement doesn’t hold the heat to maintain a robust one hour and 45 minute runtime. By waiting too long between each individual domino tipping, audience interest fades in step with the fiction’s gradual fizzle.
The film instead manufactures atmosphere through visual appeal. Interiors submerge themselves in lantern-lit blackness. Production design drapes exteriors in chilly snowfall or thick fog for a drearily dreamlike quality befitting the tale’s tone. Dark cinematography sometimes overindulges in its enchantment for shadowy settings, resulting in more than one sequence requiring squinting to see.
Imagery isn’t the only element that can be difficult to discern. When facts finally fall into place during the last act, there can be some confusion regarding who is who and how every piece fits together because, once again, “Welcome to Mercy” plays its cards frustratingly close to its chest. Vague character names, vaguer relationships, and other cryptic inferences taking place on two timelines unnecessarily convolute what is, in the end, a rather straightforward demonic possession yarn.
“Welcome to Mercy” isn’t bad. Its melancholy makeup merely drags it into dryness. Crying violins and other such strains in the score enhance the somber seriousness of an elegantly Gothic feel. But serving the minor morsel of mystery as a main meal without accompanying appetizers of intrigue leaves viewers desperate for reasons to remain invested in the outcome.
Performances pass criteria for believability, although the demand to be dour means no one embodies an exciting personality. This adds one more hindrance to the film’s already unfortunate inability to electrify engagement.
“Welcome to Mercy’s” spin on a familiar subject stays too slight to stand out in the exorcism subgenre. Committing more deeply to the driving family drama of Kristen Ruhlin’s script conflicts with the fright film frame, causing the movie to become enrapt in emotional themes that have a hard time hitting the heart.
Watching “Welcome to Mercy” doesn’t come with regret for having misspent one’s time. But its impact evaporates so swiftly that its message is unfortunately as negligible as the overall experience. Viewers tuned to its pseudo-soap opera style may find more entertainment value while those burned out by similar spook stories are likely to remain underwhelmed.
Review Score: 45