Unlike every other person who saw this movie, I think Mockingbird is a brilliant found footage horror film experiment. (Okay, there’s one other guy who likes it, but most reviewers really really don’t.) Mockingbird takes a unique approach to horror film structure and tone, and it builds to an unforgettable climax. Unfortunately, its approach to representations of gender is totally forgettable and anything but unique.
***The majority of this post is spoiler free; I’ll give you a clear warning when I’m about to discuss the ending all the reviewers hate so much.***
Mockingbird (2014) is the second film written and directed by Bryan Bertino, whose first film, The Strangers (2008), though now beloved in certain horror film niches, was not well received by critics. Mockingbird went straight to VOD and though it was released on October 7th, at the time of this writing it still has no score on the Tomatometer and perhaps more startlingly, no Wikipedia page.
The consensus of reviewers is that the production company buried this film because Mockingbird is not a good movie.
From the Mockingbird review on Best Horror Movies:
How many trailers have you seen for the film? Probably not many. With the fan friendly Blumhouse behind the project, perhaps we should guess that something just isn’t clicking with this one. If there’s any company out there right now that’s definitely going to stand behind their releases, it’s Blumhouse. But they’re not standing behind this one, and yes, there is most certainly a reason for that, Mockingbird just isn’t the picture that fanatics are hoping for.
Here’s the film as summarized on Netflix: “A woman, a man and a couple each receive a video camera and instructions to keep filming — or face terrifying consequences.”
I loved Bertino’s The Strangers because it combined great horror storytelling with an awesome representation of a female character in a horror film.
Unfortunatly, Mockingbird does nothing to challenge tired, stereotypical representations of gender in film. It presents the wife as the character who freaks out, and the husband as the character who makes a plan and goes for the gun. It relies on the problematically gendered trope of the lovable loser dude.
So, if it doesn’t challenge representations of gender and pretty much everyone who reviewed it says it’s total crap, why on earth would I call Mockingbird brilliant?
Because its triple story structure builds toward the most heartbreaking ending I’ve ever experienced in a horror film.
Let me explain:
Mockingbird intertwines three storylines: two are perfectly parallel, but the third clashes completely with the tone, plot and pacing of the first two.
While the couple and the woman become increasingly terrified in their own homes…
…the man is happily running around town dressed like a clown, super enthusiastic about this kooky quest he’s on and dreaming about winning $10,000.
First, let’s unpack the gendered trope of the lovable loser dude, and then I’ll explain why I like and root for Leonard in spite of the fact that he occupies this problematic Slacker role.
For filmmakers, the easiest way to make an audience like a character despite the fact that he’s a lazy failure of a human being is to steep that character in privilege. We’re always expected to root for young straight white cis men, whether their laziness makes them waste away their lives, or their ambition makes them endanger their entire family.
Am I saying that Mockingbird is totally the worst most stupid awful misogynist film ever? Not at all. I’m saying that it does nothing to think outside the box in terms of its approach to men and women in horror.
Am I saying that we can’t like Leonard? Quite the opposite, actually — my positive review of this film is predicated on how much I liked Leonard as a character.
We viewers need to notice the privilege afforded to the Slacker character, and we need to recognize that this is a gendered trope invested in oppressive sociocultural hierarchies. We need to take all of this into consideration, but that doesn’t mean we cannot like and root for Leonard.
There are lots of great lovable losers out there, characters like Andy Dwyer — good-natured dudes who exhibit a stupid but endearing exuberance.
Barak Hardley’s Leonard has an Andy Dwyer quality: a zany zest for life couched in total lack of ambition or drive. Like Andy, Leonard doesn’t hesitate to show gratitude to his peers. Like Andy, Leonard expresses his sexual desire for women while still managing to seem like he respects them.
From the moment we viewers are first birthed from the box on Leonard’s doorstep into his grungy world, we are met with his trademark mixture of excitement and nervousness about what he believes to be some kind of sweepstakes contest:
“Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!”
When he finds another box containing a clown costume:
“Yes! Yes! Yes! A clown outfit! Oh! I get to wear clown makeup! Yes!”
Any horror fan worth hir salt circle will realize pretty much instantly that Leonard’s excitement is misguided. Reviewers don’t like that Mockingbird telegraphs its ending so early; they don’t like that it’s obvious where all of these intertwined arcs are headed.
From the Mockingbird review on We’ve Got This Covered:
Established as a cut-together game show of sorts, Mockingbird eliminates any appearance of legal enforcement since the baddies presumably edited all the remaining footage. From this hint we can immediately start determining how the contest may conclude, a situational assessment that Bertino all-but confirms by telegraphing plot-points hours before they happen (at least it felt like hours).
But I thought that was the most fascinating aspect of Mockingbird: I knew where Leonard’s story was headed, but clearly he didn’t. Throughout the film, he functioned as the comic relief, but I knew that his comedy would ultimately wind up served back to me as tragedy, tragedy with a side of red balloons.
Leonard’s unbridled enthusiasm broke my heart; he was so excited and grateful to be a part of what he thought was a contest. He had no idea he was in a horror film until the final scene of the movie.
Lines like these in particular pulled on my heartstrings:
“I think this is gonna be a really good night for me.”
“This is without a doubt, the coolest moment of my life.”
And this line just broke my fucking heart:
“Okay, just promise me that you guys aren’t just making fun of me. Just please be real.”
Then when he’s practicing his “Surprise!” in the mirror, smiling and nervously counting down — this moment made me SO SAD. Because what happens next is anything but a surprise.
Mockingbird reviewers also express frustration with the film’s unoriginal approach to home invasion terror, the boring banging outside the house, the standard-issue found footage shots:
There seems to be a new film releasing every few weeks at this stage that takes on the same ‘shaky cam’ format, most with little success. Is it completely dead as a sub genre? I think not, as there is still room for greatness to be done. Mockingbird, however, is not the film that is going to win over the naysayers. (Horror News)
I have to agree that the sequences of the couple and the woman bring nothing unique to the home invasion terror table. However, I think the banal nature of this approach to found footage terror serves to emphasize Leonard’s tragic exuberance, the most meaningful and fascinating aspect of the film.
Many films suggest that it’s totally worth it to risk it all and go for the gold; Mockingbird tells us that taking risks can be dangerous, that shooting for the stars can result in tragedy — even for young straight white cis men. It shows us the downside of relentless positivity, which is a surprising thing for a horror film to do.
THE TORMENTORS ARE CHILDREN.
Most reviewers absolutely detest the final moments of the film:
The climax feels insulting to the audience that has gone along for the ride, and is completely devoid of any meaning or merit. It just highlights all the issues you had throughout the viewing experience, and exposes the film for the poorly conceived idea it is. (Horror News)
With Mockingbird…I specifically remember that horribly dumb ending that retroactively ruins the best moment of in the movie. (Horror Movie a Day)
Reader, I will forgive you if your mind can’t stomach the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy this film, because frankly, it is pretty damn ridiculous.
The tormentors are children? Really? Is this believable? NO, absolutely not.
Nor is it believable that Leonard would be so great at applying clown makeup, or that his face would stay so fresh throughout the rainy night. Nor is it believable that these 1995 cameras could sustain the battery power and footage capacity to document so many hours of activity. It’s all totally ridiculous.
BUT — if you can bring yourself to suspend disbelief, then you’ll be able to enjoy the way that Mockingbird turns an established horror story on its head:
Instead of the traditional tale of the Monster Clown attacking innocent children…
And the revelation that the tormentors are children explains so much about strange things that transpire throughout the film:
It explains why Leonard is tasked with juvenile acts like “I’m farting and I’m peeing in the women’s room” and being kicked in the balls. It explains why the terror experienced by the couple and the woman consists of childish pranks with sinister twists: ding-dong-ditching, prank phone calls, chalk arrows leading the way.
What Mockingbird doesn’t explain is why these kids are going around making strangers kill each other. Yes, it’s frustrating that we don’t get an explanation, but maybe we should take a page from Leonard’s book: when he’s talking about his reluctance to enter a women’s restroom, he says, “Let mysteries exist. I don’t need to know all the answers.”
Have you seen Mockingbird? Did you hate it?