Written by: Bryan Bertino & Sam Esmail
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Audrey Marie Anderson, Barak Hardley, and Todd Stashwick
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
If you stop filming, you die.
The Strangers has provided one of the damnedest situations in recent memory: while the film was released to relative acclaim and a substantial profit, the proposed sequel has been in limbo for nearly a decade. But whatís even more astounding is that Bryan Bertino somehow hadnít directed anything until checking in at Blumhouse to helm Mockingbird last year. Give Jason Blumís outfit credit for recognizing an underutilized talent and for giving it another opportunity. Even better, Mockingbird is reason to rejoice because it renders the need for a Strangers sequel redundantófor all intents and purposes, this is a spiritual successor, and a pretty good one at that.
Set in 1995 out of practicality, the film hovers around a trio of supposed contest winners: suburbanite parents Tom and Emmy (Todd Stashwick & Audrey Marie Anderson), lonely college student Beth (Alexandra Lydon), and gullible but good-hearted loser Leonard (Barak Hardley). Each receives a mysterious video camera in the mail with instructions to film for the next round of the contest, which is actually a demented, twisty game being put on by a psychopath. The cameras are rigged to never turn off, the cryptic instructions become increasingly threatening, and horrific, unsettling footage begins to unfold the participantsí televisions. With the game in motion, the players are manipulated into place over the course of one nerve-shattering night thatís headed in an obviously bleak direction.
Mockingbird is an interesting marriage of the genreís immediate past (the mind-bending puzzle boxes of the Saw era) with its present (the disorienting faux cinema verite beget by Paranormal Activity). Itís a natural pairing, and Bertino plays to the strength of each: Mockingbird thrives on both its intriguing, minimalist plot, and the uneasiness generated by its found footage aesthetic. Despite being a bit of a mutt with familiar DNA strands, itís compelling, especially as a mood piece. Thereís an unrelentingly sinister vibe to it because Bertino employs the technique in such an invasive manner: you feel as if youíre peering into home video footage of these charactersí lives, and it feels more voyeuristic than most similar films since itís the killerís modus operandi. Even if it feels just a tad too slick, itís a scuzzy assault from its opening sequence, which climaxes with a child being shot in the head, a bewildering, inexplicable fit of violence that haunts the entire film.
Doubly impressive is that itís the only instance of violence until the end of the film. Until then, Bertino relies on suggestion and atmosphere: the dark, stormy night ambiance pumped up to almost preternatural levels, and an overwhelming sense of dread overhangs the proceedings. Even the subplot that has Leonard bombing around town in a clown outfit and performing mundane tasks is strangely unnerving once the pieces begin to fall into place. The film lures you into laughing at the poor sod when heís asked to do jumping jacks or get kicked in balls for the mysterious ringleaderís amusement, but things take a sinister turn when he unwittingly crosses paths with the other participants.
When combined with the typical funhouse scares (strange phone calls, flickering electricity, recorded messages, creepy mannequins), the result is a familiar but effective procession, albeit one with a jagged rhythm. Mockingbird is a brisk 81 minutes, yet itís rather deliberate at times: the setup takes a while to be set into motion, and it feels listless until you realize the film is going to stretch its central mystery (Who is behind this game and why has he chosen these targets?) across its entire runtime. Upon accepting that, I gave myself over to Mockingbird, which needs to be met halfway at times, particularly when the characters themselves begin to abandon on logic or common sense. Doing so allows you to soak in the tremendous pacing as it rolls ahead towards its climax.
I wish it stuck the landing, though. Because the ghosts of Saw linger, you almost expect Mockingbird to weave its three plot threads into a mind-blowing climax; instead, you sense it losing steam as it becomes clear Bertino is just circling familiar territory by exploring an inexplicable, banal evil. When Beth asks her tormenter why heís fixated on her, itís almost surprising not to hear the familiar Strangers refrain: ďbecause you were home.Ē Bertino actually offers less of an explanation during a reveal just before the credits roll, leaving the audience with a purposely vague, somewhat unsettling ending that would be submarined by further elaboration. Itís already ridiculous enough, so smash-cutting to the credits is wise.
Mockingbird has other issues: save for Leonard (who is so pathetically gregarious that you canít help but feel for him as he plays right into someoneís sinister hands), the characters are blank slates meant to shuttle viewers from one frightening scene to the next. The climax especially suffers as a result because who is manipulating their fates is more pertinent than what that fate may be. As those ghastly events do unfold, you sense that the film could and should be a little grimier as well. It never quite recaptures the disturbing pseudo-snuff vibe of its bullet-in-the-head overture, though that moment does give Mockingbird an edginess and a sense of danger, something thatís been sorely lacking in many of Blumhouseís recent wide-release efforts. Where those films feel almost prefabricated for multiplexes, Mockingbird arrives with weird, somewhat grungy distinction. Buy it!
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