Bryan Bernito first hit the scene in 2008 with the tension-filled home invasion film The Strangers. That taught, suspenseful piece of psychological terror left me scared to be home alone, distrusting of any and all persons unknown and eagerly anticipating his follow-up.
The couple and the student are instructed to keep filming, and as the evening goes on, the “contest” (we all know it’s not a contest) becomes more and more sinister – videotapes containing threatening imagery appear, the phone lines are cut, and the presence of unseen intruders makes itself known outside the houses. Constantly monitored and with little hope of escape, panic sets in as the characters struggle to understand and piece together exactly what is happening to them. Interspersed with these scenes is Leonard’s story – his instructions set him on more of a scavenger hunt, instructing him to don a creepy clown costume and participate in various stunts all over the city.
As much as the premise sets up an interesting possibility for the story, it fails to make good on the potential, and ultimately, Mockingbird is terribly disappointing. It tries to present a new angle in found footage storytelling, but winds up collapsing under its own weight. The three separate storylines could work if they were similar in tone. Unfortunately, two are grim and the third (Leonard the Loveable Loser) functions more as a piece of comic relief throughout most of the film. It makes it terribly difficult to maintain any appreciable amount of tension from scene to scene. There are some very suspenseful moments as the couple and Beth are trapped in their respective houses by unseen intruders who can see their every move, but when we’re cutting away every few minutes to check in with the hijinks of Leonard the Happy Clown, it’s impossible to stay in the moment, and any tension that has been building is subsequently deflated.
And Leonard is one of the more interesting characters in the film. He’s a genuinely fun character to spend time around, but throughout the first part of the film, you wonder why exactly he is a part of the story, when the other two stories are clearly more interesting. And though the film doesn’t necessarily telegraph the ending, you do start to understand how the three branches will be converging in the final act. This does lead to a bit of dramatic tension as you wait for the inevitable conclusion, but again, jumping back and forth causes it to dissipate when it should be gradually building.
All in all, Mockingbird was an interesting experiment that ultimately failed. Incorporating the found footage aspect as part of a game from the mind of a twisted assailant is an interesting way to set up the events and to provide a reason for the characters to continue filming the events when any rational person would turn the camera off. But sadly, the execution was rather poor and the film failed to find its intended rhythm. I was so excited to see what else Bernito could bring to the table, and I will happily wait for his next offering.