Spooky Movies: Mr. Jones (2013)

Mr Jones - Poster

Mr. Jones is the first film written and directed by Karl Mueller, and as such it’s a very small, stripped-down feature. The film begins with artsy young couple Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) taking off into the backwoods of the American Midwest for a year to make the greatest nature documentary of all time. Unfortunately, as Scott admits in the opening montage, he…kinda…doesn’t…have…any idea…at all…what his documentary is, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that he blew a ton of money (and dragged his wife away from her photography career) for a pipe dream. Fortunately for Scott, he and Penny soon discover that they share their woods with someone else, a heavy-coated stranger (Mark Steger) who lives in a dilapidated bungalow and has a basement full of rather gnarly scarecrows. The stranger, as it turns out, is “Mr. Jones,” the urban-legend of an artist who mailed a dozen of his scarecrows to random addresses all across the United States in the mid-1970s, then vanished just as suddenly. Our young couple begins poking in Mr. Jones’ affairs, only to discover that his scarecrows are tied to some sort of ritual activity meant to pacify something in the woods. Naturally, Scott ends disrupting one of these rituals, resulting in death of Mr. Jones, the casting of the woods into eternal night, and Scott and Penny themselves being stalked by malevolent dopplegangers.

As I said, Mr. Jones is a very stripped-down movie. There isn’t much going on that isn’t dedicated to building the premise or advancing the plot. However, this movie has stayed in my collection for two reason: its discussion of art, and its experimentation with the subjective nature of “found footage.”

After discovering Mr. Jones’ bungalow, Penny sends Scott on an expedition to NYC to interview a number of people connected with Mr. Jones in some capacity. They are usual suspects of gallery owners, journalists, and art historians, of course, but the interviews also include anthropologists, New Age scholars, and one poor bastard who got a scarecrow in the mail. The two pools of subjects set up an interesting dichotomy: the idea of art as a commercial commodity against the idea of art as a primal, order-creating ritual act. When looking at Mr. Jones’ scarecrows (provided for the film by the emotionally stable folks behind Pumpkinrot) and hearing his conjectural history, I was reminded of the work of the German artist Joseph Beuys. Unlike Mr. Jones, Beuys was a public figure who preferred installations involving fat and felt and performance pieces with himself in a shamanistic role, but there is an affinity between the two with the idea of the artist as a seer, as someone who helps humanity to get back to the basics and understand the order of things. Penny and Scott, who start out the movie firmly wedded to the art-as-commodity view (upon finding his workshop, Penny expresses the hope that they will be able to put together a coffee table book of his scarecrows), are led by Mr. Jones to understand and take up his rituals. Unfortunately the art discussion is something of a secondary thread, and it gets lost in the shuffle of the final act.

The film has greater success in playing around with the mechanics of the found footage/pseudo-documentary style. Something I’ve come to realize as of late with found footage movies is that, even in films where everyone is waving a camera around, there is no guarantee that what you see on the screen is actually filmed footage. Mr. Jones plays a lot with this idea. The film is initially presented as material Scott has assembled into a documentary on nature/Mr. Jones, complete with title cards, but there’s a certain ambiguity with the footage. The movie starts off with Scott and Penny driving up to the house in the woods, and it’s not entirely clear if Scott is actually filming their drive up. The “documentary” itself is oddly edited: days are abbreviated, conversations are chopped up, and every so often there are shots that could not have been taken from any camera in Scott’s possession. In the end, it seems that the film of Mr. Jones is not a documentary assembled by Scott, but Scott’s own subjective viewpoint. In its own way it manages to characterize him a great deal; he has a scattershot focus, his attention fades in and out, and as a result he doesn’t listen to people very well. He’s also not much of a filmmaker: when Scott travels to NYC, the film splits between Scott’s viewpoint and Penny’s. Aside from the interviews, Scott’s perspective consists of him fast-forwarding through every aspect of his trip, while Penny’s viewpoint focuses on the sedate, “arty” shots of nature akin to the ones we saw at the beginning of the movie from Scott’s documentary.

Scott’s subjective viewpoint is challenged in the last third of the film when he disrupts the ritual and the doppelgangers emerge. At this point, the camera detaches itself from Scott’s eyes and floats around him, in the hands of the Scott’s doubles. Mueller starts to borrow more heavily from David Lynch in this final third, with blue lights, electrical cracks, malevolent doubles with grinning teeth, and one sequence very clearly modeled after the home invasion videotape from Lost Highway. (I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of Lost Highway popping up in movies over the years, so much so that I’m starting to believe that film has been far more influential than anyone realizes.) As for the ending of the movie, I must confess that I’m not entirely sure what it means. There’s a lot of stuff thrown in at the final minute that isn’t exactly easy to read. The best I’ve done so far is to interpret the film as an attempt by one man to put together an origin story for himself, to explain what he has become.

Ultimately, Mr. Jones is a flawed first effort, but it shows some potential. It’s worth a rental, if nothing else.

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