There’s a common joke these days that the same people who warned their children not to believe everything they see on television are the same ones quoting a random internet user’s philosophy or anecdotal experience as fact. While there’s a bit of truth to it (seems media literacy isn’t what it once was), what is true about now versus then, when it comes to parents and children, is the rise of always-on, always-accessible information thanks to mobile communication devices and the prevalent installation of surveillance devices on a person. This isn’t a conspiracy theory: when I was the age of my children, there was no cell phone, high-speed wifi, or smart devices around. No mechanics that overheard our conversations, tracked out interests, or kept a log of our day-to-day lives. This is, more or less, expected now, raising with it new problems to be addressed. Writer/director John Curran (Chappaquiddick) borrows from this, crafting a narrative that’s as much a straight mystery thriller as philosophical parable, utilizing the high-likelihood of one’s vulnerability thanks to advanced technology to bring about every parent’s worst fear. Led by Luke Bracey (Violet/Point Break), Curran’s Mercy Road is almost entirely set within one location and very nearly fully executed in real-time, resulting in a compelling ride, even if not altogether fulfilling.
Night falls and Tom (Bracey) is behind the wheel of his car, trying to outrun a choice he cannot take back while trying to make right a lifetime of mistakes. One thing he knows for certain, his daughter Ruby (Martha Kate Morgan/Jenna Pham), is missing and finding her may prove to be his absolution. Adrenaline pumping as he moves from major thoroughfare to rural roadway, he will not stop until he finds her. Then his phone rings and an enigmatic voice (Toby Jones) fills his front cab, setting before Tom a choice with consequences that are far-reaching.
The trailer that Well Go USA released to advertise the theatrical and digital release of Mercy Road teases that everything in that 2 minutes and 15 seconds is from the first 30 minutes of the 85-minute film. This may seem like a gimmick at first, but it’s possibly one of the better trailers released in 2023 that gives you everything you need to know about tone, plot, and style without actually giving away the entire film. In that vein, what follows will be similarly cagey, not just because we at EoM strive for an initial spoiler-free read, but because Curran’s film is structured in such a way that multiple reads of it are possible. It’s certainly an evocative film, utilizing the parent-child dynamic, as well as parental conflict to ratchet tension. Additionally, the film opens in relative darkness and never really leaves it, the audience only ever given sound and inference to guide them about what happens prior to Tom’s intro. This means that the audience is already on weak ground regarding truthfulness and the situation itself is so dire that we, as passengers on this perilous ride, want to presume that we’re on the path toward righteousness. However, between the blinders that Curran outfits us with by dropping us in right as things are getting intense and then continually finding new ways to push the throttle (metaphorically and literally), we find ourselves trusting that we’ve made the right choice in siding with Tom. Bracey is nothing else if not, magnetic in his performance. Yes, we are captive to him, but we’re also captivated by what Bracey does in the space — his passion, his confusion, and his terror are hard to look away from.
An aspect of the script that really works for maintaining tension is the use of the location and setting. The cinematography is deftly handled by Ross Giardina (Catch the Fair One), making smart use of the constrained space inside the cab so that we get multiple views of Tom’s space, even when he’s powering down the road nearing 100 mph (or 160 km/h as this was shot in Australia). The intimacy of the camerawork leaves very little of Tom’s face hidden from us, enabling us to see the exponential wreck of a parent he’s becoming the further into the drive he goes. Curran also manages to find a way to introduce a natural element, an arachnophobe’s nightmare (here’s your trigger warning), which the creator utilizes not only to landlock the story into a specific location, but create an opportunity for additional physical and psychological distress. One can’t imagine the strain a lost child can take, but then to add a spider on top of it — f that. What is likely going to be debated as both in its favor and a tad distracting is the look of the film outside the walls of Tom’s truck. There, it’s highly glamorized in a graphic novel style made popular with Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005), the world given a hyperreal style that’s strangely tangible *and* ethereal. It’s with this visual styling, some of which exists within the cab, too, that gives Mercy Road a signature look that screams horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, despite being very much of today. It’s also a significant aspect that infuses Mercy Road with a sense that all is not what it seems.
Again, in trying to keep things spoiler-free, there’s a lot that isn’t discussed regarding other characters, their performances, or the aspects of Mercy Road which make one shudder. As we close, however, where the film may lose its audience is in the conclusion. There are so many elements that work in literal and metaphorical spaces that their culmination leaves one a bit at a loss. This openness or potential contradiction may cause some audiences to wonder at what they just watched, while others will want to go for a ride again to see if there’s something that they missed. I have my own theory and, should a home release review be executed here, I’ll gladly explore it in detail, but, for now, just be advised that the ending of the film may make the difference between having a new holiday favorite and moving on to the next.
In select theaters October 6th, 2023.
Available on digital October 10th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA Mercy Road webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.