Mr. Jones: Tribeca Review

Mixed-bag thriller gets lost in its own head games

Karl Mueller's debut as director imagines a reclusive artist whose sculptures may be psychic weapons.

NEW YORK — An escape from middle class ennui goes much further than expected in Karl Mueller's Mr. Jones, a thriller with a promising outsider-art premise that ultimately gets too wrapped up in mystical, reality-questioning headgames to tell a satisfying story. That failing and an annoying spin on the found-footage trope shouldn't hurt much with genre auds, who will enjoy the distinctive atmosphere of this sometimes beautiful film.

Scott and Penny (Jon Foster and Sarah Jones) are a good-looking young couple who've left the city behind for a year of bucolic solitude. She's suspending a successful photography career to support his half-baked plan to make the world's most beautiful nature doc; in an attention-getting intro sequence, Scott's moody voiceover establishes just how quickly this dream has turned to boredom and marital stress.

Nearly two months into the experiment, though, the couple discovers a nearby cabin belonging to "Mr. Jones," a reclusive artist whose work was celebrated decades ago, despite no one knowing anything about him: Seemingly random people (including a New York art dealer) received packages whose scarecrow-like contents incorporated skulls and ritualistic trinkets; though art collectors snapped them up, initial recipients tended to be affected strangely by the mystery gifts. As one authority puts it, "these things...get inside your head, and they explode."

Deciding this is too good an opportunity to pass up, Scott and Penny ditch nature to make a doc about this art, which the cloak-wearing recluse scatters throughout the nearby woods. In the genre-honored tradition of idiot protagonists, they sneak around Jones's lair while he's building new shrines, climbing ladders into skull-filled basements, splitting up to explore labyrinthine tunnels, and doing everything but ordering coffee mugs that boast "World's Greatest Human Sacrifice."

Scott has already built a video rig with cameras pointing forward and backward, meaning Mueller can tell the story using (with a couple of suspicious exceptions) only the footage the characters shoot themselves. But the reverse-angle shots grow tiresome in a matter of seconds, a close-up overdose of "oh my god!"s and "holy shit!"s as discoveries are made. As the film focuses more on scares, these shots grow more derivative of The Blair Witch Project, a reference already made unavoidable by Jones's sticks-and-twine art.

As Jones starts to take an active interest in the amateur filmmakers trailing him, he exerts a control over their minds making danger hard to distinguish from safety. Though initially tantalizing, depicted via off-kilter montage and ping-pong chronological movement, this head trip takes over the film, dragging long beyond the point at which it ceases to be effective, then beyond the point at which one cares what is meant to be "real" and what is hallucination.

The confluence of the waking and dreaming worlds is central to the film's shamanic themes, admittedly, but a good shaman wraps metaphysical mysteries up into more compelling ceremonies than this. When judged as schizoid surrealism instead of black magic, Mr. Jones falls far short of obvious inspirations like David Lynch's Lost Highway. But it wraps up its freakout with a comprehensible, if predictable, transformation, which should let horror fans walk away feeling they've gotten their money's worth.

Production Company: Preferred Film and TV

Cast: Jon Foster, Sarah Jones, Mark Steger

Director-Screenwriter: Karl Mueller

Producer: Ross Dinerstein

Executive producers: Jamie Carmichael

Director of photography: Matthew Rudenberg

Production designer: Ben Spiegelman

Music: Herwig Maurer

Costume designer: Jocelyn Wablau Parker

Editor: Saul Herckis

Sales: Kevin Iwashina, Preferred Content

No rating, 83 minutes