Tribeca 2013: ‘Mr. Jones,’ a great horror film that doesn’t quite stick the landing
Written and directed by Karl Mueller
The very first shot of the Tribeca entry Mr. Jones is very clearly shot by a handheld camera, from the inside of a car, by a couple who are heading off into the wilderness for some reason. “Fantasic,” the thought might come, “yet another found-footage horror movie. There have only been a million of those in the past five years.” And Mr. Jones is a found-footage horror film, no question about that, but it has a unique and interesting take on the format which works perfectly on its minuscule budget. As with most horror movies, in doesn’t really matter if the format is unique if it’s scary, and Mr. Jones is definitely that.
Jon Foster and Sarah Jones are the lovers, who are heading off into the wilderness to film a nature documentary. Except the documentary is actually a terrible idea and their relationship is already fraying at the seams, so when they happen upon the home of a famously reclusive artist known only as “Mr. Jones,” they’re more than willing to drop everything and make their movie about him. Too late, they find out that Jones is reclusive for a very good reason.
That description might make it sound as though Jones is a slasher or a demon, but without spoiling anything, that’s not exactly the case. Writer-director Karl Mueller is clearly influenced by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, where the true horror is not something that can be precisely perceived and would drive most normal human beings insane if they tried. Mr. Jones has the perfect atmosphere for that sort of story, where the scary things are not overt on the screen but are in the imaginations of the characters and the audience. Even when a typical found-footage gimmick is used – the “victim drops the camera” gag appears at one point – it’s used in a different way and for a different dramatic purpose.
It’s difficult to review Mr. Jones because it takes a sharp turn in its third act. Without spoiling anything, the film continues to be in a found-footage style, but the identity of the filmmaker shifts radically. This is a clever tactic because it almost serves as commentary on found-footage films. A common joke among critics about the Paranormal Activity franchise is to ask, “who edited these movies?!” and it seems that Mueller is offering a cunning answer to that question.
The biggest drawback of the conclusion isn’t the twist itself, but the fact that the climax goes on for far too long after the twist. Astute viewers will have a good idea how this movie is going to end, which would not normally be a problem, but the movie takes forever to get there. Plus, there’s too much repeating of exposition that came earlier in the movie with the clear intention of setting up the ending. It almost seems like a studio suit demanded that this movie explain itself too much in the final act (although that couldn’t have happened, because Mr. Jones is as micro-indie as they come).
Mr. Jones is 83 minutes long, and about 70 of those minutes are perfectly atmospheric and creepy. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there is no shame in that; the ending is not outright bad, and it’s clear that the film ends the only way it could possibly end. Perhaps Mueller’s movie doesn’t end quite as crisply and efficiently as The Blair Witch Project did, but the movie as a whole still succeeds on its own merits.