Karl Mueller wrote last year’s truly awful apocalypse flick The Divide, directed by Xavier Gens, which posited that when the chips are down, 99% of people will turn into slavering, sub-human monsters. Incisive stuff. Now he’s back with his directorial debut, Mr. Jones, which boasts a much more interesting setup.
Scott and Penny (Jon Foster and Sarah Jones), an artsy young couple with marriage problems, repair to the desert so Scott can focus on finishing a nature documentary, only to discover that they’re living next to a famously reclusive artist, Mr. Jones. As they investigate Mr. Jones’s reputation (inscrutable; possibly dangerous) and body of work (creepy, skeletal scarecrows and other quasi-religious ornaments), they get increasingly uneasy. There’s clearly something more to Mr. Jones than a Salinger-like disaffection with fame, and like all good horror-film protagonists, Scott and Penny can’t leave well enough alone. Unfortunately for the film, neither can Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Jones starts out promisingly. The mysterious artist is a cypher of a character – a black-cloaked specter skulking around the edge of the frame – and he represents a great distraction for Scott and Penny from their rapidly deteriorating relationship and failed artistic endeavors. Scott suddenly finds his motivation, and Penny suddenly finds herself supporting his work instead of nagging him to get off his ass, even putting her own life on the line to help him scope out Mr. Jones’s homestead. Their excitement at having stumbled onto something so secret and so strange, not to mention potentially lucrative, powers the film through its first half handily.
Despite their infatuation with shaky first-person camerawork, Mueller and his DP, Mathew Rudenberg, make good use of what could be a confusing array of narrative positions, at least at first. Scott’s camera looks both ways, and we frequently cut between what Scott’s seeing and an uncomfortably close view of Scott’s (or Penny’s) own face. Penny has her own camera, which adds another point of view, and on top of all this is an omniscient camera whose position becomes more and more unstable as the story progresses. Faced with such a range of perspectives, viewers are asked to question the veracity of everything we see, since we can never be totally sure through whose eyes, or camera, we may be looking at any given moment.
The provocative potential of this arrangement (see Haneke’s early work), however, is sadly squandered as the story unravels during its second half. The visual devices that worked to make the first half of Mr. Jones tense and involving become muddled and confusing, as the story reveals itself for the poorly-conceived effort that it is. It’s completely unclear exactly what happens in the end. Time travel? Personality split? A confluence of supernatural forces? Regardless, having so many different perspectives on an already convoluted story only make it more confusing as it heads towards its finale. What’s set up as a big reveal instead turns out to be a crush of overdetermined, half-conceived symbols and plot twists, ultimately signifying nothing.
I got the distinct feeling that at least some of this confusion was due to willful obfuscation on the filmmakers’ part; Mueller seems to be under the impression that dazzling his audience with narrative footwork, like overlapping timelines and competing points of view, will distract them from the tenuous thread on which his story is ultimately hanging. The only time techniques like these actually add to a film’s impact are when they work symbiotically with the substance of the narrative itself, in films like Primer or Memento – or, to put it succinctly, when form follows function. Mueller’s reach ends up exceeding his grasp, and we are left with a promising setup and a disappointing denoument and not much in between. He’s a talent worth keeping an eye on, but his next effort had better hold up better than Mr. Jones.
– By Lita Robinson