My notes on Mercy
This dour, involving siege thriller from writer-director Chris Sparling (The Atticus Institute) has a great hook. Turner (Dion Graham), a doctorly type played by an African-American as a shorthand for integrity, turns up at the door of a farmhouse in the sticks with a black bag containing a medical gadget and an experimental drug. He offers the bag to George (Dan Ziskie), whose wife Grace (Constance Barron) is upstairs in bed, plainly dying, and tells him that using its contents could ‘ease her pain’. However, when we get inside the house, it’s deftly sketched that nothing in this situation is simple – Grace has left in trust a sum of insurance money she got after the mysterious death of her abusive first husband, which is supposed to go to her older sons Brad (James Wolk) – the film’s token normal – and Travis (Tom Lipinski), a short-fused ex-convict. George is finagling things to cut them out, so the much-needed money can save the farm for his own sons, aggressive Ronnie (Michael Godere) and softer TJ (Michael Donovan).
Brad shows up with new girlfriend Melissa (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is supportive and sympathetic even though everyone is appallingly rude to her … and the family seem to be moments away from an all-out fight while Grace takes her time dying in agony and that black bag is fished out of the kitchen bin. ‘Why wouldn’t you use it?’ asks Melissa – though this is in response to an explanation crucially not shared with us. A key image of the film is a jigsaw with a single piece missing – which is more or less how the movie plays out. For a stretch, Mercy seems to be reworking material from You’re Next as Brad, Travis and Melissa are besieged by a masked trio while the rest of the family are mysteriously absent – and it seems the purpose of the persecutors is to force the sons to end their mother’s pain, perhaps to cloud the inheritance issue. However, come the morning, the film loops back and replays the night from another viewpoint – filling in gaps and answering tiny mysteries, mostly to do with the slightly sinister New Age Church which takes an interest in Grace – before a climax which might be slightly rushed (a few characters seem to get lost) but at least delivers a couple of proper surprises and reframes the actions and motivations of every single character, including the woman in the bed, in a way that ought to have you trying to fit the pieces together in your head as the end credits roll.
It has some decent ‘masked man’ scares in the vein of The Strangers or You’re Next, with the geography of the house allowing for some clever hiding places (the lurker under the cellar stairs) and a nice ambiguity about the number of besiegers and the meaning of their message (‘mercy’, of course) as spelled out by flaming letters on the lawn – but there’s also a decent unmasking moment which leads to an unexpected character beat. Because everyone has secrets, performances have to be low-key and neutral – but the quartet of brothers are each distinctive, with Godere and Lipinski simmering as the dangerous antagonistic boys and Wolk and Donovan reticent as the less ruthless brothers. The way the plot rolls and unrolls doesn’t service all the characters equally, but the pattern does in the end make sense – especially when the mcguffin bag is finally opened.
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