“Why would you let her suffer?”
It’s practically impossible to talk about what’s happening in Chris Sparling‘s latest thriller Mercy without spoiling it. The writer/director knows, splitting it into three pieces as a result: the first third completely shrouded in mystery, the next a replay from alternative perspectives, and the last the truth of the pursuers’ identities and the lies their victims have been spinning from the start. The only other Sparling film I’ve seen is his most popular one, Buried (he wrote with Rodrigo Cortés directing), but the similarities in deflection and confusion are obvious. Whereas it focused solely on one character trapped without the ability to fully comprehend what’s happening, Mercy places the viewer in the coffin. We don’t know who’s out there and we definitely cannot trust the family in peril.
I’ll stick solely to the first act to whet your suspense thriller appetite with a brief summary of matriarch Grace’s (Constance Barron) failing health opposite her second husband George (Dan Ziskie) and four sons. The eldest boys (James Wolk‘s Brad and Tom Lipinski‘s Travis) were from her previous marriage, their father described as an abusive yet wealthy figure who died long ago. The other two (Michael Godere‘s Ronnie and Michael Donovan‘s TJ) have been conspiring with their dad to ensure that wealth will ultimately be theirs alone. George changed the will, moving Grace’s estate to himself with Ronnie and TJ’s acquisition occurring after his passing. Oblivious to this deceit, Brad and Travis believe their birthright splits five ways. And everyone ignores Dr. Turner (Dion Graham) as a result.
Turner offers solace with an experimental drug able to take Grace’s pain away. Why do they refuse it if she’ll still die? We don’t know—this wrinkle providing the bulk of the film’s intrigue. We know why they want her dead despite varying degrees of love with Ronnie and TJ in default, Travis’ ex-con in debt, and Brad seeking a payday with girlfriend Melissa (Caitlin FitzGerald), but not the reason pain and suffering must remain. So when Brad and Travis wake in the middle of the night to find George, Ronnie, and Travis gone and Dr. Turner’s bag (anyone can administer the medication) on Grace’s bedroom table, we’re even more confused. The lights go out, two masked men wreak havoc, and someone gets a bullet to the head.
I was wholly invested during this first act because I had absolutely no clue what was going on. It was borderline frustrating to the point of leaving partway through—that’s how clueless we are upon being dropped into this disturbed family’s home. Everyone’s shady and seemingly capable of homicide beyond just letting Grace die. Could the masked men be Ronnie and TJ? You bet. Could Travis or Brad be in one it, playing the fool for each other and us? It wouldn’t be the first time a movie went in that direction. What kept me in my seat was therefore the desire to find out. I needed to know what Dr. Turner’s bag contained because I started feeling shades of The Box with a supernatural force potential at-hand.
So I inched forward in my seat when the second act rewound the action and showed us what happened before Brad and Travis woke up. We’re supplied a substantial amount of clarity and yet no one should be surprised to find him/herself more confused than before. Because the more we discover about the characters we’ve seen, the less we know about the characters we didn’t. But herein exists Mercy‘s conundrum: to deliver something our genre-steeped minds can assume or something we can’t even begin to fathom. I generally go for the latter, but it only works if the presence of an unknown adds something to the proceedings to force someone onscreen (or the audience) to think differently. Sadly Sparling never quite molds his resolution into doing so.
Where he takes us makes contextual sense to the big picture and the climax never wavers from its bleak anything-goes morality, but to what end? It shocks us and puts whoever is still alive to acknowledge its reveal firmly into a corner, but is that enough to succeed? For some it is. For me, however, it felt lacking. Too much is suddenly taken at face value to render all mysterious intrigue a waste of time. My imagination was piqued, my mind hatching up crazy outcomes alongside the anticipation that Sparling would deliver something else entirely. But what we actually get is somewhat of a whimper. The truth proves a bit pedestrian and the motivation less complex where it concerns Grace and more convenient where it concerns the suspense.
If this were a straightforward horror of faceless monsters terrorizing this family without each pair of brothers knowing whether the other was alive or involved, it may have worked in a randomized violence. Because the villains are unmasked, though, our brains clamor to know more. We want to know their history as much as we do their unsuspecting victims. We want to know what sparked them into action besides warped religious notions of duty. Showing them demands that we ask questions that the film isn’t interested in supplying. But the absence of this meaning doesn’t ignite conversation and interpretation. No, it leaves a gaping hole that can only be filled with our irritation instead. And that’s too bad because the first two acts really do work.
Sparling is as crafty visually as he is with dialogue throughout that opening hour of uncertainty, stringing us along without the ability to grasp a full picture even after merging two different vantage points into one. Both Wolk and Lipinski invest in the mystery, their characters lying as much to themselves as the audience to keep the lights out until the last possible moment. I just wish it added up to more than hollow thrills. While the ending doesn’t discount the dread or atmosphere from the beginning, it asks more questions than it answers. And since those queries aren’t necessary for the trajectory lain out from start to finish, Sparling thinks we don’t care. But we do. We learn enough about what’s happening, but not enough about why.