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October 20th, 2015


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10:14 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Mr. Jones
"Mr. Jones" is the only Counting Crows song I know. It's also the title of a Talking Heads song, and whenever it comes up on my MP3 player, I expect it to be the Counting Crows song.

It's also the title of a movie from 2013, which Netflix suggested because--as stated last night--it doesn't know what I'm interested in. Specifically, Mr. Jones was recommended based on my two-star review of The Lazarus Effect. Why would I choose to watch it, after disliking The Lazarus Effect? Some questions cannot be adequately answered.

I don't want to suggest that Mr. Jones digs further down the rabbit hole of mediocrity, though. I actually quite liked it, or at least, I quite liked the first two thirds (or so). The final act falls apart, and even as I type that, I can't really imagine an ending that I'd have found satisfying. There are really only so many directions a movie like this can take without flying completely off the rails. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Mr. Jones follows Scott and Penny, a young couple who have taken a year off in order to make a nature documentary which falls apart when Scott realizes that he doesn't actually have a plan. They're both exasperated with each other and with the situation when Scott's backpack is stolen. A search for the thief leads them to his home, and it's the proverbial Cabin in the Woods. The thief isn't in at the moment, so they do a little snooping. Down in the basement, they discover a workshop filled with disturbing scarecrows made from twigs, animal bones, and rags. The hear the door open upstairs, and they wedge themselves into dark corners when the owner comes downstairs.

After an exhilarating escape (in bright, afternoon daylight!), Scott and Penny make it back to their cabin. Scott is focused on the close call, but Penny is ecstatic that they've found the elusive Mr. Jones. Who? Penny pulls out a coffee table art book, and turns to the spread on Mr. Jones, an outsider artist who, during the 1970s, sent a handful of packages containing his elaborate scarecrows to random recipients. The scarecrows are worth a fortune, and nobody knows who he is, or why he's been doing it.

Mr. Jones starts out looking like a "found footage" movie, but that's just Scott's failed documentary. The film alternates between Scott's footage, traditional movie narrative, and snippets of interviews with art dealers and collectors, and anthropologist, and others who have conceived an interest in Mr. Jones works. These interviews are interspersed throughout the film, but eventually we see that they're footage Scott has shot after returning to New York in order to drum up some interest, do a little research, and prepare to contact Jones directly. I'll give you a quick precis: Nobody knows anything. At least, nobody knows anything about Jones himself. They do know that his scarecrows are disturbing and highly sought-after. One man recounts destroying the scarecrow he received, and begs Scott not to delve any further. Another says that the owners of the scarecrows will tell you they're just objets d'art, but that the people around them will tell you that Mr. Jones's works cause hallucinations, time dilation effects, and the perception that they're living in a nightmare. One oft-repeated sentiment: If these are scarecrows, then what the hell is he trying to scare away?

Penny returns to the woods alone, and Mr. Jones startles her while she is photographing one of his outdoor displays. She gushes excitement and praise, and proposes a collaboration for the book she wants to write, but he stands mute, dressed in dirty black rags, his face hooded. When she gets a glimpse under the hood, she understands that this is not what she thought it was. Unsettled and filled with a deep sense of dread, she makes some excuses and backs away. He does not pursue her.

Penny is done at this point, but allows Scott to convince her to keep watch one night when the cabin is empty again--he wants to get a better look at that basement, and in particular, the sealed shaft they hadn't been able to explore the first time. The shaft leads to a series of underground tunnels, and Scott is too intrigued to care when the signal craps out on the radio he's carrying. Penny frantically radios that Mr. Jones has returned, but Scott can't hear her; he's found a candlelit room where a circle of the scarecrows surrounds a smaller figure, wrapped like a baby with candles for eyes. He takes the thing, stuffs it into his backpack, and makes a harrowing escape.

Mr. Jones is constructed from ideas left over from The Blair Witch Project, and as unpromising as that sounds, I found it incredibly effective. In fact, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I found myself becoming increasingly anxious over the course of the movie. Unfortunately, it doesn't last. Once the doll is in the backpack, the movie collapses (at least, it did for me), as Scott and Penny find themselves trapped inside a nightmare where time becomes disordered, and they encounter other versions of themselves. The film does present us with an impossible, supernatural ending, but it does little to salvage the mess that the film has become.

The critics chided Mr. Jones for failing to deliver a satisfying ending, but frankly, I can't imagine any ending being equal to the mystery set up in the first two acts. The problem with Cosmic Horror stories that the Big Reveal is supposed to be too big for comprehension. Sometimes you can get away with that in text by letting the reader fill in the blanks, but it's nearly impossible in a movie to drop a revelation so big and sanity-blasting that the medium of film can't confine it, and that's what Mr. Jones tries to do. I have to wonder what these critics were expecting. A cannibalistic backwoods psychopath, maybe? Been there. Done that. Skipped past 27 different versions of it this evening on Netflix before I decided on Mr. Jones.

I liked Mr. Jones, but as I said, eventually it just falls apart. I really don't know how to fix that--sometimes the journey is better than the destination. Here's the trailer:

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31 Days of Halloween: Mr. Jones - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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