'My Days of Mercy': Film Review | TIFF 2017
Ellen Page and Kate Mara star as lovers against the backdrop of a death penalty case in Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer's American debut.
As schematic, unlikely and low-key as it is in its portrayal of a lesbian love story against the backdrop of a death penalty drama, My Days of Mercy still exerts a certain pull due to its unblinking evocation of bare-bones working class American life and the slow-burn relationship sensitively etched by Ellen Page and Kate Mara. This first American outing by Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer, whose initial feature, Princess, scored at Sundance two years ago, won’t go far commercially but will be embraced in circles particularly attuned to same-sex romance and death penalty subject matter.
It’s unexpected in and of itself to imagine a love story back-dropped by the capital punishment issue, and you can’t exactly call it a meet-cute when trailer-trashy Lucy (Page) encounters the somewhat classier Mercy (Mara) at a gathering of pro-and-con death penalty adherents outside an Ohio prison where a murderer is about to take the needle.
The two women are on opposite sides of the debate. Lucy, whose wardrobe initially seems to consist exclusively of an anti-death penalty t-shirt, is there with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz) and younger brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) because their father (Elias Koteas) is on death row for murdering his wife—their mother—eight years earlier. Martha, in particular, refuses to accept Dad’s guilt and still hopes to find enough exonerating evidence to get him off the hook.
Mercy is on hand because the man who’s about to have his final meal smoked the partner of her police officer father; cop killers deserve no leniency in her book.
Still, love has overcome bigger obstacles than this, and it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Mercy has something on her mind other than carrying signs and batting around the age-old arguments. What’s agreeable and appealing here is how slowly and naturalistically matters gestate between the two; it does seem somewhat contrived that two such diametrically opposed women could clear a path toward a relationship, but their obsessions overlap to a degree, just as there could be unknown separate issues that bring them together.
The older Mercy is decidedly the aggressor, dropping suggestive innuendo and seemingly stimulated by Lucy’s self-protectively sarcastic remarks; on a moment-to-moment basis, the interplay between the two is engaging and rife with an erotic undercurrent. All this goes on in a depressed environment filled with trailer dwellers, grungy bikers, all-day beer drinkers and all-round no-hopers—Trump-country, some will call it.
The best moments lie simply in the interchanges between the two women; good friends in real life, Page and Mara, according to the press notes, were looking for a project to do together for some time until finding this one, and their verbal sparring and intimate scenes, of which there are several, feel warm and credible, even if they don’t go too far.
As the execution date for Lucy’s father approaches and the existence of a boyfriend of Mercy’s rears its head, things get grim again. To its credit, the film doesn’t propagandize against the death penalty but, rather, dramatizes the fact of the matter as it finally hits family members when all options run out.
Now 30, Page still looks ten years younger and delivers strongly as an emotionally stunted young woman who’s been robbed of anything resembling a normal or amorous life due to her father’s predicament. Playing the friskier of the two, Mara has fun with her role; the two are a good onscreen match.
Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook, presents the down-and-out Middle-American backdrops in a starkly realistic fashion but also does his job to help the stars look good.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala)
Production: Great Point Media, Killer Films
Cast: Ellen Page, Kate Mara, Amy Seimetz, Charlie Shotwell, Elias Koteas
Director: Tali Shalom-Ezer
Screenwriter: Joe Barton
Producers: Ellen Page, Kate Mara, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa
Executive producers: Jim Reeve, Robert Halmi Jr., Karri O’Reilly
Director of photography: Radek Ladczuk
Production designer: Maya Sigel
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Music: Michael Brook