Friday, June 26, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Mr. Jones (2013)

Mr. Jones (2013) is a legitimate found-footage gem that -- despite being imaginative and well-made -- has earned negative reviews from critics and users alike. 

Most of the venom directed at the film involves the third act, which serves as the horror movie equivalent of the climactic “star gate” sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). To wit: it goes on for a very long time, and is avant garde in terms of visualization. 

For the impatient among us, I suppose, it may prove vexing.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, I found Mr. Jones highly intriguing, and at times, genuinely frightening.

It’s a horror film (and found footage film) that doesn’t rely on a body count to thrill or terrify, and, oppositely, creates a genuine and pervasive atmosphere of dread.  This is a movie in which -- by the half-way point -- you will feel that there is something wrong or off-kilter with reality itself; that the universe has been suffused with forces both dark and sinister.

Commendably, Mr. Jones also seems to be a commentary on creativity, and of the importance of finding your purpose in the world. That purpose may not be what you propose or desire, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid it, either. 

Art -- and the work of one artist in particular -- plays an important role in the film’s narrative, for instance.

I’ve watched so many found footage movies lately, and Mr. Jones, because of such unusual and cerebral touches, ascends to the top tier of the genre. 

The film suggests, to quote John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), that there is an order to the universe…but it is not at all what we had in mind.

“You have no idea what these things do to your mind.”

Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) quit their jobs, sell their belongings and move out to a house in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere.  

There, Scott hopes to fulfill his dream of making a nature documentary.  But there’s another reason for the move too. Scott and Penny’s relationship has been failing, and this re-boot could be their last chance.

Fifty one days later, Scott is depressed, unable to create his film, and Penny has grown impatient with him, especially because she has given up her career as a photographer to support his dream.

Then, one day, Scott discovers a house nearby, practically hidden from sight. Inside the dilapidated home is a vast basement workshop, and a bizarre art gallery of creepy scarecrows.  Upon seeing this, Penny realizes immediately that they have found the reclusive and world-famous artist, known only as Mr. Jones (Mark Steger).

Scott and Penny immediately hatch plans to make a documentary about their hermit neighbor, and Scott heads to New York to interview several experts in the art and anthropology worlds about Jones’ strange “totem”-like works of art. 

However, one man who received a scarecrow in the mail (Ethan Sawyer) delivers an unequivocal warning to Scott: “Don’t try to track down his work. Don’t look for him.  Don’t speak to him.  If he comes near you, run…”

Meanwhile, all alone in the cabin in the wild, Penny has her first close-up encounter with Mr. Jones…

“He’s doing something to us.  I wish we hadn’t gone down there.”

The leitmotif underlining Mr. Jones is that art (and indeed, the artist) must have a purpose, and must fulfill that purpose.  

Scott is an aimless, depressed would-be artist in the film. He dreams of making a nature documentary, but when he gets the chance, can’t rouse himself to do it.  Even though his best friend and the love of his life has put everything on the line to support him and his art.

The idea here is, naturally -- and truthfully -- that it is a lot easier to talk about being an artist than to actually create art. 

Creating art takes hard work, dedication, and sometimes grueling self-discipline too.  Scott wants to be famous, or successful, but he may not possess the temperament to be an artist, and as the film develops, we see that is indeed so.  His destiny, his very purpose, may involve art, but not in the way he anticipates or hopes.

By contrast, Mr. Jones is the real deal. 

This strange, reclusive man in a hood works not for money, celebrity or success, but for a deliberate purpose. As the movie explains, Mr. Jones’ art may possess a very practical, meaningful purpose in terms of reality itself.  His scarecrows or totems may be the very thing that keep the Other World, or the Dream World, from flooding into our own dimension.  

Where some people view Mr. Jones' art with terror, others see it as pro-social and necessary, protecting reality itself from invasion or subversion.   Certainly, like the very best art ever created, Mr. Jones’ totems impact those who see them.  They change lives, they change destinies.

The movie’s central question, of course, involves the nature of those changes.  Are they for good or evil? Do the scarecrows terrorize people, as the scared recipient quoted above so abundantly believes?  Or do they help awaken people to a new reality, existing side-by-side our own? 

As you may be able to detect from my description, there’s a Lovecraftian quality to the film’s narrative, but more than that, even, Mr. Jones is about finding your purpose and fulfilling it. The hard truth is that not everyone has the temperament to be an artist, let alone a successful one.  Scott learns this, and, by film’s end, steps into a different (though related…) set of shoes.

Mr. Jones’ forges its story through a series of talking-head interviews that are surprisingly well-acted and well-presented. The talking heads involved (the curators, the anthropologists, etc.) debate Mr. Jones and his identity.  

Is he a mental patient? Is he a death-row inmate” Is he a dentist? A house wife in Ohio?  The answer is never given, but the point is subtly made. You must look for answers about Mr. Jones and his identity not in matters of personal biography, but in the text -- in the very body and shape -- of his various art works.

The last third of the film showcases what occurs when Mr. Jones is no longer around to guard the portal between the Waking World and the Dreaming World, and for some, this is apparently the point where the film goes off the rails.  

Scott, much like the scared recipient, begins to see a version of himself (with a camera) constantly chasing him, filming him.  It is a nightmare he cannot awake from, but one that he must beat back, must set right. The whole world goes woozy in this segment of Mr. Jones,  portrayed as a twisted surreal nightmare, a night that lasts for days in defiance of the Laws of Physics. 

In this nightmare world, Scott must complete what seems a relatively easy mission (the return of a totem to an underground altar), but it takes him what seems like eternity to do it. You can either get frustrated with this fact, or accept the notion that the film carefully puts forward, that the Dream World moves according to its own rules.  

Have you ever had a dream that you can’t awake from, in which you are trying to accomplish something, but can never quite do it?  

The third act of Mr. Jones explores that concept. And it does so at length. In doing so, the film creates tension and frustration, but also feelings of helplessness and even paralysis.

I was willing to go with the flow, if you will, and let Mr. Jones work its dreamy, trance-like spell on me.  That’s the contract we make, really, with movies, especially those of the horror film variety.  We pay our money, and then the movie (a work of art) shares us its vision. It is incumbent, I think, for us to meet that vision half-way, or at least with an open heart.

The first half of Mr. Jones tells us a somewhat typical, but well-executed found footage style narrative (right down to some very successful jump scares), but the last half stretches for greatness, taking a camera of the real world into the terrain of the dream world. I credit the film’s writer/director, Karl Mueller with a terrific ambition, coupled with a muscular sense of visual imagination.  I loved, for instance, how he uses light and dark, and the spaces between. If Mueller made any  misstep at all, it was, perhaps, one of pacing; of letting the final act endure two or three minutes longer than was, finally, necessary for reader's to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

So many found-footage movies are content to repeat and recycle tiresome formula, and eschew ambition, whereas Mr. Jones attempts to expand the genre's playing field.  I would judge the experiment a success, especially in terms of overall mood or atmosphere.  The movie not only captured my attention, it legitimately unnerved me.

Mr. Jones, much as Penny describes the titular artist's works of art, really needs to be seen in the dark.  

"It's like the air is vibrating..."

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a must-see if you like the genre. I will definitely be on my to-see list.