“A young woman struggles against the unholy forces that possess her in this terrifying occult thriller. After being stricken with stigmata, single mother Madaline (Kristen Ruhlin) is sent to a remote convent where nothing is what it seems and her friend August (Lily Newmark) is seemingly the only person she can trust. Together, they must confront the demons inside Madaline before she becomes the Antichrist.”
Fresh from its world premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival and directed by Tommy Bertelsen, from a screenplay by lead actress Kristen Ruhlin, IFC Midnight’s Welcome to Mercy is a film which is difficult to discuss without revealing major revelations from late in the movie. It is, suffice it to say, a visually intriguing film with strong performances and a nice spin on the nunsploitation genre.
Ruhlin, as the mother looking to find out what’s wrong with her, is constantly besieged by images of a deep well and flickering memories of her past. Madaline’s affliction is real, but the scars of the stigmata are more mentally affecting on a permanent basis than the physical manifestation.
That idea — that mental wounds cause more damage than physical harm — can be said to be Welcome to Mercy‘s underlying theme, with seemingly all of the inhabitants of the convent at Mercy overwhelmed by something unspoken from their past. Intriguingly, Mercy is located on an island, while Madaline is separated from everything and everyone she knows.
The separation is made doubly worse by the fact that, while Madaline is on an island, hardly able to speak with her own child by phone, she’s also in a foreign locale. While Latvia is, ostensibly, her home, she’s been in America long enough that she’s essentially a foreigner in her native land.
I wish that aspect had been explored further or made more deeply ingrained. I suppose it oughtn’t be surprising that many of the nuns speak English well, as it’s intimated that many of them have come there from elsewhere, including the obviously British young woman, August, who tries to forge a friendship with Madaline. However, a language barrier might’ve heightened the tension and aspect of otherness which, while there, is mitigated a little more than I would’ve liked by the fact that the seeming majority of Welcome to Mercy is in English. It just doesn’t feel as far away as it might have, otherwise.
Ruhlin’s performance is very strong, and her sense of confusion and loss is palpable in every scene we see her in. The journey of Madaline in Welcome to Mercy requires quite a large amount of emotional investment from the actress, and she pulls it off with aplomb. Also of particular note is Newmark’s work as August, who has just the right combination of longing and mystery to make the viewer believe August’s instant infatuation with Madaline. The young woman sees something in the mother that causes her to feel she’s found a kindred spirit, and her puppy love is absolutely natural in how it’s expressed.
The relationship between Madaline and August might feel as strong as it does simply because it’s the only one which really has time to develop. Welcome to Mercy is a tight 90 minutes, and while it’s something I rarely suggest these days, the film definitely could’ve used more time to explore Madaline’s relationship with her daughter, as well as the one with her parents.
Both familial relationships are introduced early on, and a lot is made of how important they are, but aside from some tense interactions between Madaline and her mother, and some brief instances of Madaline and her daughter on the train, both are essentially in a state of telling, not showing. Madaline says how much her daughter means to her, but it’s more of a case of she’s a mom, and moms love their kids, rather than anything we’ve seen, aside from some cuddling.
The relationship issues aren’t helped by the fact that the plot is murky until the latter third of the film, with a lot of mysteries being raised, giving Welcome to Mercy‘s dramatic structure what feels like multiple instances of climax and falling action, until the eventual dénouement. But even that final resolved conflict gets a little tweak in the fading seconds of Welcome to Mercy, leaving the viewer with a sense of an almost literal wink at the audience.
Welcome to Mercy is a movie which feels like one viewing isn’t enough, but the questions raised throughout aren’t necessarily strong enough to warrant multiple watches. It’s on the cusp of being a fantastic film, but it just doesn’t cohere enough in terms of mysteries and their resolution to ever terrify or intrigue enough.
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