Welcome to Mercy carries with it reminders of the most frustrating episodes of “The X-Files.”
Directed by Tommy Bertelsen from a script by its star, Kristen Ruhlin, Welcome to Mercy carries with it reminders of the most frustrating episodes of “The X-Files.” A wonderfully atmospheric film full of quotidian dilapidation and religious grandeur, its creators spend a great deal of the film’s running time asking questions that may never be answered. The existence of the paranormal and whether possession has befallen Ruhlin’s Madaline, or whether we are watching events unfold through the perception of a madwoman, are first among those questions.
The movie begins like an ode to Dracula films with Madaline and her young daughter, Willow (Sophia Massa), travelling on a train through Latvia. From there, the single mother and her child take a late-night cab ride along a dark and snowy road. The ride ends and the driver seems somewhat reluctant to linger and help with bags. Madaline and Willow are not expected, and their presence at the front door is a shock to her mother, Alyona (Ieva Seglina). Madaline speaks with an American accent, her Latvian roots having left her after her parents gave her up for adoption. How she ended up in America is never made clear, but she was old enough to have memories of her parents and some sort of correspondence with her father, Frank (Andrey Yahimovich). Frank drew Madaline home with a letter proclaiming that he was sick and dying, but from the lock on his door and the wolf’s bane hanging over his bed, horror movie parlance puts that letter in question. Something about Frank is not quite what it seems, and Alyona damns him when they are alone.
Alyona masks any feelings of joy about seeing her daughter and grandchild with coldness. The freezing weather has sapped the phone lines, so no transportation can be arranged. But, the old woman wants her unwanted quests to leave for a hotel in the village. For Madaline, this is another abandonment at the behest of her mother. A confrontation ensues that ends with Madaline and Willow staying. Unable to sleep, Madaline steps outside in the cold and frost for a cigarette. The sound of a cat wailing draws her to the ramshackle barn and the well inside. A force pulls her down the well, opening the possibility that a macabre wonderland has been entered.
Alyona finds her on the ground the next morning. Not long after that, the stigmata begins. Hovering in her father’s bedroom, bleeding as Christ bled on the cross, Madaline unleashes a telekinetic attack, hurting Willow during this supernatural episode. Because of the pain she’s caused her daughter, Madaline agrees to go to a secluded convent. The Mother Superior (Eileen Davies) promises to help her, but Madaline feels more and more isolated within the hallowed grounds, and the ethereal quality of the place, the other nuns she meets and the mystery that unfolds around her parents makes the situation feel imagined. At times, one cannot help but wonder if the only thing that exists is Madaline while all the rest will be revealed as psychosis.
Thankfully, while Bertelsen and Ruhlin have constructed a slow burn, at times the film is a wild ride. The story gets a needed jolt with the introduction of August (Lily Newmark), a young nun whose interest in Madaline seems equally sexual and possessive. But who and what August is defines the diegetic reality between the paranormal and madness. Madaline’s abandonment is the core of the movie. Such emotional wounding leaves questions that can rarely be answered to the satisfaction of the abandoned in the real world, but a horror movie provides ample space for simpler answers. Madaline is truly possessed by a demon and it’s her parents’ fault. The exorcism of the demon will represent the healing of that estranged relationship, but it will come at a price. These things always do.
A penchant for prolonged rumination is the greatest sin of the film’s creator. The mystery surrounding Madaline is a bit thin and some scenes at the convent only serve as filler, but despite this unevenness, Welcome to Mercy lands on the higher end of midlevel horror offerings. Bertelsen leans heavily on some visual standards, including a shot heavily indebted to Get Out, but he sustains a consistent sense of menace throughout the film that pays off with the occasional jump scare. As writer and actor, Ruhlin is a talent to watch, one whose name in the credits of any feature should inspire a curious viewing. It might be the sequel to this movie, because, like a proper horror franchise, the groundwork has been laid.