Friday 23 March 2018

BFI Flare 2018: My Days of Mercy

Dir: Tali Shalom-Ezer
At every American prison that has them, executions tend to be greeted with two opposing protest groups. On one side are the victim’s advocates groups, who protest in support of the death penalty, on the other the anti death penalty groups, advocating for the prisoners and protesting the use of execution as a sentence. My Days Of Mercy finds two young women from opposite sides - Pro death penalty Mercy (Kate Mara) and anti death penalty Lucy (Ellen Page) - first finding connection and then perhaps love across this political divide. It’s a complicated relationship, all the more so because Lucy’s father Simon (Elias Koteas) is on death row for murdering his wife.

Ellen Page and Kate Mara have been offscreen friends for some time, and have apparently been looking for a project to act in together for several years. Some might find it disappointing that their first project (which they also co-produced) isn’t a Tiny Detectives movie, but My Days Of Mercy gives each of them one of their most interesting roles, well drawn characters and a relationship to invest in.

Lucy and her family - older sister Martha, played by the always excellent Amy Seimetz and a younger brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) - are the film’s main focus. As her father’s case comes down to the wire and an execution date looms, their lawyer, Weldon (Brian Geraghty) is hopeful that there may still be avenues to explore for getting Simon, who Martha believes is innocent, more so than Lucy does, off death row and maybe completely cleared. These scenes are my main sticking point with My Days of Mercy. At a script level I didn’t buy the derisive way that Lucy treats Weldon, nor the way that he offers so few caveats when talking about the potential effects of ‘new evidence’ on Simon’s case. I’m not sure, from Geraghty’s performance, how competent we’re supposed to read Weldon as being. 

Outside these scenes though, the family dynamic is believeable. Even when there is tension between them, you get the sense that Lucy and Martha are close, that they love each other and their younger brother. There is an ease about the way Page, Seimetz and Shotwell work together that gives scenes in their RV, as they travel to and from execution protests, the familiar feel of a typical family road trip which, to some degree, they are for these characters.
Ellen Page is an actress I’ve always liked, but I’ve not cared for some of her recent films. My Days Of Mercy, for the first time in a while, uses her really well. Page’s Lucy is tough, smart, witty and loving, often in the same moment. Page often shows us how Lucy is hiding hurt, it’s not just in the moment when she first tells Mercy about her father, we see it throughout, notably in the moment she’s saying goodbye to Mercy after they have spent the night together, and doesn’t want to show her unwell little brother either that she’s hurting, or what her relationship with Mercy really is. Page plays Lucy’s outward emotions well, but it’s the way that she always lets us see under the surface that impresses.

Kate Mara has the smaller part, and Mercy is seen entirely in how she relates to Lucy. It’s here that Page and Mara’s off screen friendship pays great dividends. The two play off each other beautifully, their obvious affection for each other seeming to lift both of their performances. The relationship between Lucy and Mercy grows credibly and patiently. It’s easy to write quirky characters. What’s harder to pull off, what screenwriter Joe Barton does well here, is to give us characters who just feel like real people in a situation that, for most of us, is unfamiliar. Page and Mara have a playful chemistry throughout, one that grows from their first drink together, to a sequence when Mercy, having upset Lucy, offers to drive her home from a protest (several states away), and into their intimate scenes.  Their connection comes across powerfully in some of the smallest moments; the silent goodbye when Benjamin is watching, Mercy taking out the hair tie to tie Lucy's hair back when hers breaks. The sex scenes are frank, but that sense of connection that carries through the entire love story between Lucy and Mercy makes them feel a little less exploitative than they otherwise might.

Director Tali Shalom-Ezer largely keeps things simple, but she finds some nice stylistic touches, like the simplicity of introducing each execution and protest with a static shot of the last meal and captions detailing the prisoner and his crime. Of course this becomes more impactful as the number of executions grows, and when we finally have to go inside the prison in the film’s last act (leading to scenes in which Page and Seimetz, in particular, are devastatingly good). The screenplay combines the political questions with the relationship story effectively, and while I think it’s clear which side the filmmakers eventually come down on, the politics are never hectoring. The way they are represented, in fact, is as more of an outgrowth of experience than of principal, and viewed like that it’s easy to see either side of the issue. This isn’t an issue movie though, and all of the politics feeds into character and most importantly into the relationship that is the heart of the film.

I would expect My Days Of Mercy to see a UK release some time around the end of the year, and it’s worth seeking out when it does.

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