The Horrors of Human Cruelty: A Review of Mercy Falls [REVIEW]

Writer-director Ryan Hendrick takes a bloody detour from the lighthearted rom-com territory of his previous film Lost at Christmas with the uncompromisingly bleak survival thriller Mercy Falls. Set against the gorgeous yet unforgiving landscape of the Scottish highlands, Hendrick’s film unflinchingly explores how past traumas can warp and corrupt the moral compass, leading a group of old friends into a waking nightmare of mistrust, violence, and primal self-preservation.

The seeds are planted in the film’s disquieting opening, where a young Rhona (Lauren Lyle) witnesses her father euthanize her beloved horse in a haunting act of perceived mercy. Years later, Rhona reunites her university clique – the flirtatious Andy, jealous Scott, pleasure-seeking Heather, and timid Donnie – for a hiking trip to her family’s remote cabin in the wilderness. Each carries their own suppressed psychological scars from abusive upbringings, sexual repression, and other unresolved anguish.

Joining the group is the unhinged Carla, an erratic loner with a violent military past. What initially seems a fortunate encounter with a skilled outdoorswoman quickly devolves into a traumatic Lord of the Flies-inspired downward spiral. A shocking act born from petty jealousies escalates into a brutal fight for survival as the isolated friends turn on each other under Carla’s increasingly unbalanced leadership. Suddenly facing primal decisions of loyalty, morality, and self-preservation, the group’s darkest traumas and impulses rise to the surface.

From this shattering inciting incident, Mercy Falls transforms into a harrowing endurance test laced with moments of startling violence. Hendrick proves skillful at ramping up the tension through atmospheric building blocks – eerie Scottish folk songs performed by locals at a pub foreshadow the nightmarish journey ahead, while ominous fog banks and punishing rainstorms constantly threaten to disorient the fractured group as they traverse the rugged highlands.

The natural beauty of the Scottish landscapes, lensed with a painterly eye by cinematographer Lol Crawley, provides a stunning yet harsh counterpoint to the savagery that unfolds. One particularly harrowing sequence finds Carla and her pursuer scrambling across a perilous ravine, the threat of plummeting to their deaths adding an extra layer of dread.

Ryan Hendrick and Lauren Lyle filming Mercy Falls
Ryan Hendrick and Lauren Lyle filming Mercy Falls

While the narrative slips into some familiar territory, hitting many of the well-trod beats of classic survival thrillers, Mercy Falls remains gripping due to the grounded motivations of its characters. Unlike many horror films where promiscuous behavior is painted as a moral failing deserving of punishment, the sins and traumas haunting this group feel more nuanced and realistic – childhood abuse, repressed sexuality, toxic masculinity. Their flaws arise from universal human failings rather than black-and-white judgments.

Hendrick’s willingness to subvert expectations also keeps the audience on their toes, as the power dynamics within the group continue shifting in surprising ways. Just when you think you have a handle on who the true threat is, the film zigs in another direction. Lyle excels as the tormented Rhona, whose journey takes her to some psychologically dark places. But it’s Nicolette McKeown as the unraveling Carla who makes the biggest impression, delivering a mesmerizing performance of escalating mania.

As the body count rises and moral lines become blurred, Mercy Falls morphs into a searing indictment of how the cruelties and psychological wounds we carry can pervert our very natures when pushed to extremes. The script posits that under the right circumstances of fear and desperation, even those who consider themselves good people are capable of monstrous acts of self-preservation and violence.

This potent thematic undercurrent gives Mercy Falls a resonant emotional core amidst the escalating brutality. While some character motivations can still feel a bit thin at times, rendering a few of the friends as mere horror movie archetypes, the strong central performances by Lyle and McKeown ground the film. Their layered portrayals of two damaged souls pushed to their limits keep you invested.

The film does lose a bit of narrative steam in its protracted final act as the cat-and-mouse scenario begins to run in circles. A few too many fake-out climaxes and reversals of fortune dull the impact slightly. But Hendrick manages to strike a nice balance between gritty realism and pulpy thrills, avoiding going too far into exploitative territory.

The climactic face-off between Rhona and Carla, set amongst the astonishing vistas of the Scottish highlands, crackles with raw emotion and visceral intensity. Hendrick’s skilled sense of locale ensures that the rugged environment remains a formidable antagonist in its own right, upping the plausibility factor.

Mercy Falls succeeds as a sort of grim, arthouse slasher – an uncompromising psychological trauma-thriller that uses its brutal story as a vessel for exploring heavier themes. While not quite achieving the transcendent heights of similar survivalist horror films like Eden Lake or The Descent, it remains a tense and atmospheric piece of genre fare that leaves a lingering impact.

For those with the stomach for its savage story, Mercy Falls marks a striking tonal departure for Hendrick and an impressive calling card. By stripping away supernatural elements, the film allows the very real horrors of human cruelty, both outward and self-inflicted, to take centerstage in a stark, unsettling way. It’s a harsh reminder that our personal demons have an uncanny way of resurfacing under the most extreme circumstances, warping our moral compasses in service of self-preservation at any cost.