DIRECTED BY: Karl Mueller
FEATURING: Jon Foster, Sarah Jones
PLOT: Deep in the woods, a documentary filmmaker stumbles on the residence of “Mr. Jones”, a legendary builder of scarecrows whose works are rumored to cause madness.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Mr. Jones isn’t nearly as bad as you might have heard. It took something of a pummeling because its last act is so weird that it confused and alienated many viewers. That said, although the movie may be worth a rental or Netflix stream for weird horror fans on a slow night, it’s not the kind of game-changer it would need to be to make the List of the Best Weird Movies of All Time.
COMMENTS: The filmmaker has stopped taking his meds and has “no idea what this movie is about in the first place.” That’s not a confession from the director’s statement to Mr. Jones; it refers to the nature-doc movie-within-the-movie that would-be auteur Scott has retired to the country to make. Scott and wife Penny decide to change the focus of their unfocused documentary in midstream when it appears they have stumbled upon the hideout of the celebrated reclusive scarecrow-maker (?!) known only as “Mr. Jones.” That setup covers the first half to two-thirds of Mr. Jones, with Scott and Penny’s descent into madness constituting the film’s final act.
As far as horror icons go, the shambling, hooded Mr. Jones doesn’t do much—oh, except for bring insanity in his wake. The movie’s early scenes are effective at creating unease and tension, from the unexpected appearance of a cloaked figure in the background of certain shots to a nerve-wracking moment when Scott gets lost while exploring a strange labyrinth underneath Mr. Jones’ shack. The final act, which traps the couple in what seems to be an eternal midnight filled with nightmares inside of nightmares, is where the movie tends to lose its audience.
Unlikely as it might seem for a guy who’s setting out to make a nature documentary, Scott films himself and his wife sleeping, and having sex. The “found” footage that composes Mr. Jones is also, at times, heavily edited, including addition of a voiceover and soundtrack song, along with one heavily manipulated travel montage. There are even moments (especially late) when the movie appears to shift viewpoints within a scene, or move from a first-person to a conventional third person point of view. The fact that the film we’re watching has clearly been through extensive post-production breaks the Blair Witch vérité spell. Many people point to the movie’s seemingly inconsistent use of the found-footage format as a flaw, and perhaps it is. Perhaps the perspective shifts are less arbitrary than they appear, however. The question, I suppose, is whether Mr. Jones‘ ramshackle construction is the result of sloppy craftsmanship, or a reflection of an unreliable, unstable narrator. Related question: if sloppy craftsmanship inadvertently conveys a psychotic state of mind that is appropriate to the subject matter, is that a bad thing, or a happy accident?
Mr. Jones got a raw deal with both audiences and critics. I think this is a result of difficult market positioning. The film is too thoughtful, ambitious and surreal—and too PG-13—for the average horror fan. At the same time, it’s not polished enough and too genre-y to make much headway in the arthouse press. In other words, it’s too smart to be a popular success, but not smart enough to be a critical hit.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“You can’t really dip into dream logic if you have nary a single eye-popping visual, and in doing so, Mueller completely wastes a unique, potentially durable concept…”–Gabe Toro, Indiewire (festival screening)