MIFF PICK – Ambitious low-budget Australian race-against-time thriller ‘Mercy Road’ is a mildly interesting failure

Driver’s seat: Luke Bracy in ‘Mercy Road’.

Mercy Road * (85 minutes)
Well, as far as recommendations go this one is heavily qualified.

Straight up, Mercy Road is not a very good film. Ambitious, sure, but one that falls well short.

Set almost entirely in and around a speeding car, a frantic, sweat-smeared father (Luke Bracey) screams and shouts and swears his way through a non-stop barrage of phone calls as he tries locating his 12-year old daughter Ruby (Martha Kate Morgan) who has been kidnapped following an image of her appearing online.

It’s always a huge ask for one actor to be burdened with carrying a film almost entirely on their own, so kudos to Bracey, who did such good work in Hacksaw Ridge, and whose performance here must have been as exhausting to sustain as it is to watch.

That said, it’s way over-cooked. Driven by fury and desperation, the constant screaming and venting prevents any real tension from building. The rage is neither controlled, channeled or contained, it just spews forth at full volume, demonstrating how rage that is muted is far more compelling.

The plot, too, begins to crater once the narrative goes into real-time mode with a digital phone displaying a 60-minute countdown. More and more things make less and less sense, such as what the police are actually doing during the pursuit. As thrillers go, it’s far from taut.

The nearest point of comparison is the excellent 2014 film Locke.

Also set entirely in a car, it tells of a construction supervisor (Tom Hardy, in a superb turn) who tries organizing a massive concrete pour taking place the next day.

He can’t be on site as he’s rushing to be with the woman he had a fling with and who is about to give birth.

It’s great stuff and a far better rendering of the single-location concept that we see in Mercy Road. Check it out on Stan.

One aspect of Mercy Road that is of passing interest is how it was made using giant LED screens displaying backgrounds that were digitally created. (“The first virtually produced Australian feature”, claims the MIFF blurb.)

This allowed for great cost efficiencies – small crew; no pricey location shoots at night – and remarkable flexibility in manipulating the images to suit the live action.

So, apart from the actor and some limited use of physical sets, all other visual elements in the film are CGI.

From a technical perspective that makes the film mildly noteworthy as a locally-made showcasing of innovative, though far-from-new production techniques. (Here’s a good piece about how LED “video walls” represent a step up from the traditional key screen process.)

Unfortunately, at the Friday night screening at Hoyts Melbourne Central (Cinema 10, 8.45pm) it was difficult to appreciate the look of the film because the image quality was so poor.

Projected onto a huge screen in a wide format, the film simply looked muddy, with all the darkness, rapid editing and constant cuts to a mobile phone making it hard to make out. In short, the film looked terrible.

In the Q&A after the screening, producer Alex Proyas – noted Aussie-gone-Hollywood director of Dark City, I, Robot, The Crow, Knowing – spoke with admirable candour about the film.

He felt the grading of Mercy Road was somewhat short of perfect and mentioned the difference between the finished film and the original screenplay (by Christopher Lee Pelletier, Jesse Heffring and director John Curran).

He also added, with some jocularity, how his experience producing Mercy Road served as a reminder to stick with directing.

Alex Proyas and the film’s visual effects supervisor Andrew Robinson will be at tonight’s 9.45pm screening at the Capitol.