United States. Directed by Karl Mueller, 2013. Starring Jon Foster, Sarah Jones. 84 minutes.
I’ve just about had my fill of found-footage movies. There might still be things a filmmaker can do with the format to make his or her seem fresh and vital, but nobody seems to actually want to do these things. It’s become this decade’s answer to the ’80s slasher film: a formula to make cheap and easily-franchisable movies that don’t have to actually be very good to appeal to the target audience. Mr. Jones might be better than the ruck and run of these, but that doesn’t make it much more satisfying.
Filmmaker Scott (Jon Foster) and photographer Penny (Sarah Jones) move to the proverbial cabin in the woods, ostensibly to make a poorly-thought-out nature documentary, but really to work on their relationship. Then they discover that their neighbor may be “Mr. Jones,” a mysterious outsider artist who sends scarecrow-like sculptures to random recipients. So they decide to make a movie about Jones instead, except the more they find out the creepier it all gets, until it turns out they’re way in over their heads…sound familiar?
Okay, so it’s not entirely a cheaper, non-union version of Blair Witch but you should see the resemblance. Now, Blair Witch works because it gives us enough development to make its characters relatable without making them too distinct, and enough mythos to tantalize the imagination without spoiling the mystery. You’ve seen that Cracked video about why we all love Groot, right? Blair Witch works because the Blair Witch is Groot.
On the latter point, writer/director Karl Mueller probably overdevelops the mythos a bit too much but it actually is really intriguing and creepy. As for the former point, that’s where things get interesting. Mr. Jones begins with Scott delivering what feels like a five-minute-long monologue about his life entirely consisting of “what if?” questions, mostly pointing to a degree of self-loathing and the piss-poor state of his relationship…
…which, I gotta say, I never really felt; for most of the film, there’s no tension between Scott and Penny that I didn’t think was standard tension caused by being characters in a found-footage horror movie. But for the most part, Mueller bends over backwards to establish Scott as the sort callow, self-absorbed millennial who feels the urge to videotape every single moment of his life.
In fact, I began to wonder if Mueller intends Mr. Jones to serve not just as a Blair Witch-esque found-footage horror movie but a commentary on them, or at least on the Scott-type characters that seem to populate them. Certainly Scott is the only character Mueller seems interested in as such; despite a spirited and lively performance from Sarah Jones, Penny only seems to exist in the film in relation to Scott. That may put us way out of Bechdel Test territory, but it’s not entirely inappropriate if the point is to define how self-centered Scott is.
Unfortunately, not even this interpretation of the film (and I have actually no reassurance I’m not just pulling this all out of my ass here) actually makes it any better. Once the exposition-heavy first act finishes, two tiresome extended scenes (the warren and the storm) that desperately need trimming dominate the rest of the film…not to mention a lot of repetitive dialog. Indeed, for a good fifteen minutes, almost everything that Scott and Penny say seem to be variations on the same fundamental sentence.
Mr. Jones isn’t an entire waste of time, but its fascinating mythos and occasional genuinely creepy scene aren’t enough to redeem its flaws. Still, it is almost certainly better than whatever Paranormal Activity movie is releasing later this month, and that’s worth something, right? Right?