Disclosure: I know a few people involved with this film and viewed it several months ago for reaction purposes. The review below, written at that time, remains my honest assessment of the piece.
I recently had the opportunity to see Mockingbird, the upcoming Bryan Bertino film from Blumhouse and Universal. You’ll remember that Bertino wrote and directed The Strangers, one of the few mainstream horror successes of the past decade capable of instilling a gut-wrenching, prolonged sense of dread in its audience. Since then he’s been busy with writing and producing gigs, but I’ve been looking forward to his directorial followup for some time.
For a while I had been a little concerned that something had gone wrong. Mockingbird was shot in 2012 and I hadn’t heard much about it since then. Was it some kind of disaster? My fears were eased a little bit when I interviewed producer Jason Blum at SXSW, where he assured me that everyone was happy with the film and that it was more or less a matter of finding the right release date (Note: this date has been revealed as of publication). Still… sometimes it’s hard to stop worrying.
But now? All concern has been mitigated. Not only is Mockingbird not a disaster, it’s pretty much a f*cking knockout when it comes to suspense. While it’s most certainly a filmmaking exercise rather than a straightforward narrative, and lacks some of the studio polish of The Strangers, it actually feels bigger than that film in some regards. At times you’re aware of the experiment at hand, interweaving narrative threads à la Magnolia and Nashville within a found footage context, but it’s almost relentlessly gripping in a refreshingly cinematic manner. Despite even the found footage sub-genre.
In fact, the sub-genre is the only real stumbling block here in the sense that I feel like audiences would have been more primed for this film a year or two ago before the marketplace was glutted with inferior takes on the conceit. I know I’m generally sick of found footage features and you’re probably more than a little tired of them yourself. But my fatigue lasted all of 30 seconds into Mockingbird’s runtime, as the opening of the film more than gets your attention (and raises your blood pressure). After that there’s only a bare minimum of found footage tropes (and even those are healthily justified by the mid-90’s setting). Bertino understands that we don’t need to see every BBQ his characters ever attended to generate empathy for them. He just needs to put capable performers in unbearable situations and let us sweat things out by their side.
One of the things that makes the film work so well is the tone, and the tightrope act it pulls off in achieving it. Two of the three story threads are played out with unrelenting tension, while the third almost serves as comic relief… until you realize where things are heading. While Mockingbird doesn’t necessarily telegraph its ending, you get the feeling that things won’t be ending well and the result is like watching a car crash in slow motion. You can’t look away. So that third thread with a bit of comedy, a thread that would tonally derail most horror films, actually works as an asset towards the escalating sense of dread. And that dread is palpable. I’m mostly desensitized to the genre, but I could actually physically feel the toll of the prolonged suspense here.
Mockingbird’s ending doesn’t fully pay off that suspense. It works in a narrative sense, and it’s not bad by any means. It’s just a bit abrupt and is just “pretty good” while the rest of the film is “really great.” If the entirety of the piece is as intimate and prolonged as a stabbing, the resolution is as brisk as a gunshot. Still, there’s a nice button after you think everything’s been wrapped up that reminds you of the piece’s singularity and reclaims its bleak tone. Make some time for this film when it hits later this year and put aside your found footage fatigue for just one more night. You’ll be glad you did.
This film will be released on Digital HD on October 7th and will be available on DVD exclusively from Wal-Mart starting on October 21st.