One of my least favorite things in horror film is over-explaining. A big part of what makes things scary is mystery, and often the more we know about the antagonist or the circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves, the less potential it has to frighten us. It’s certainly possible for revelation to be frightening, but when there’s this urge to sort of tie everything together into a neat package of history and rational and causation, at best it saps some of the horror out of the proceedings, and at worst you get the sort of pants-on-head ridiculous mythology and backstory emblematic of most extended horror franchises. It stops being about “oh shit what is happening” and starts being about “well, now this is happening.”
One of the strengths of Mockingbird is that it knows well enough not to overexplain.
It opens with a title card that says “Once Upon A Time, In 1995”, and a disturbing slow point-of-view shot that ends with a young boy screaming “I did what you told me! I filmed everything! I never stopped filming!” before coming to a bad end.
(Again, I find these sort of opening setup shots a little annoying because yes, we know bad things are going to happen, you’re not establishing mood here. But it’s not egregious, and makes sense later on.)
Then we cut to a point-of-view shot of layers of wrapping paper being removed from inside the package, and this resolves into a man picking up a video camera out of a box and showing it to his wife. It appears to be a prize from a sweepstakes she entered the last time she was at the mall. Having established that this film does not take place in a world of ubiquitous recording devices, the camera (a pretty big, bulky thing) is a novelty, and the man sort of films everything, taken with the idea of this new toy, while his wife gets their two children ready to spend the weekend with their uncle. There is an intertitle that reads “The Family.” Next, we meet “The Woman”, a young woman living on her own in a guest house on a large estate. She’s in school, feeling a little lonely in a new city, and she’s received a camera as well. She plays around with it for a while as well. Finally, we meet “The Clown”, a slovenly young man who appears to live with his mother and doesn’t seem like he’s got a lot in the way of prospects. He receives a camera too, and he seems to think that he’s going to win a contest.
Four people, three cameras, and they soon enough discover that the cameras won’t turn off - they keep recording no matter what they do. And then they receive instructions as to what they need to do next, and what will happen if they stop recording. And then the opening scene begins to make more sense.
And the film does do a good job of keeping us in the dark - the intertitles give us sort of an idea of what to expect, insofar as they serve to punctuate the proceedings and suggest that we’re about to see another setpiece or incident, but they’re phrased mostly in terms of games (Surprise, Guess Who, Now You See Me…, etc.) which essentially undoes whatever closure we get from the presence of the title cards. We know something is going to happen, but without being given any real indication of what it’s going to be. The entire film takes place over the course of a single night, and the escalating nature of what our protagonists are put through as the night wears on is kept nicely tense as a result. It really isn't clear what's going to happen next, although we have some idea from the opening that it isn't going to be good, and it’s really, really difficult to predict where it’s going to go. We’re just as much adrift as the people we’re watching or through whose eyes we’re witnessing what’s going on. In some ways, it’s what’s good about found-footage without any real need to maintain the level of verisimilitude necessary for found-footage to work.
There’s not a lot of characterization to be had here - the family love their kids, the woman feels lonely and vulnerable, the clown is pretty much a loser ready to abandon his self-respect for a chance at a quick buck - but this is one of those movies where the whole point is less who these people are, and more about pieces being moved around a chessboard, and while we're watching it, it works. Their feelings of fear and desperation are palpable to us because we’re seeing events through their eyes, but we’re also an audience, we’re outside observers, and as such it becomes clear to us that everything that’s happening is engineered for theatrical effect - it's just obvious enough that a lot of it is recordings and misdirection and props. But that isn’t a problem, if anything it makes things even weirder, and the point is trying to figure out where this is all leading. Because the film doesn't ever really show us the antagonists, or give us any insight into their motivations, or try to explain how they're doing all of this, it leaves us free to concentrate on the mystery, on the sense of not knowing what's going to happen next.
Arching over all of it is the slow realization that these four people are somehow connected to each other through this macabre game, and the film takes its time bringing them all together, carefully revealing what the connections are and how it’s all going to fit in such a methodical way that the ending only really becomes apparent a few minutes before it resolves itself. Even knowing that things aren't what they seem, we know it's not going to end well, and the end gives us one last stinger, one last mystery, before turning the cameras off, leaving us as much in the dark as anyone else in the film. Under close examination, it falls apart a little - it’s tough to believe the antagonists are really capable of doing what they did, and there’s no sense of why these people were chosen or what the purpose was, but it’s like the clown says: “Let mysteries exist.” Sometimes it's better when we don't know everything, because the twisting feeling that mystery gives us in our gut as we watch four innocent people twist in the wind is evocative in ways that hours of mythology and backstory never will be.
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