By Gabe Toro | The Playlist May 2, 2014 at 3:07PM
What's distinct about "Mr. Jones" is that it lengthily utilizes three separate storytelling techniques. The narrative begins with found footage, then segues into documentary before closing with a more conventional structure. Given the sloppiness of Karl Mueller's directorial debut, it feels less like innovation and more like an attempt to cover up shortcomings, as if he had the kernel of an idea and only begrudgingly filled it out. Usually you see this in screenwriting classes during workshop sessions. Rarely does it play out on the screen in front of your eyes.
We're introduced to dim would-be filmmaker Scott (Jon Foster) just as he's taking girlfriend Penny (Sarah Jones) to a secluded cabin in the "woods" that pretty much just looks like a desert. Having abandoned his life, Scott eventually notes that he "misses [my] TV" and that the nature documentary he had planned was less than fully formed. This does not seem promising for his relationship with Penny, a supportive photographer who abandoned her job to assist him, and the two squabble and bicker as Scott keeps the camera affixed to him through a complicated, not-very-comfortable rig. You'd think contemporary narcissism wouldn't be so potentially hazardous to your back and shoulders, but there it is.
During the filming of one particularly distracted "nature" session, Scott's bag is swiped by a mysterious, hooded figure. Scott pursues, but stops and gets the camera rig when he realizes this person has absconded to a home on the hill that seems like a short walk away from their cabin. Fifty days spent filming a nature documentary, you'd think the only other house in the area would be visible. What they discover is a hoarder's paradise, complete with elaborate sculptures made up of whittled wood and twine, artifacts that Penny immediately discovers.
And now we meet Mr. Jones, a canny attempt at adding to the canon that has welcomed Freddy, Jason, Jigsaw, Pumpkinhead and any other horror "icon" that managed to persist for a couple of films. Jones is apparently a famed cult artist who anonymously sends his totems to random strangers at diverse locations without explanation, adding to a mystique that the art world has embraced much like, as Penny claims, "J.D. Salinger. Or Banksy!" While they recover the stolen goods, they also make a note to return, because now they've found a subject for their next movie. A brief shift takes us through the footage captured by Scott of leading "experts" on the mystique of Mr. Jones, all poorly acted talking head interviews that nonetheless threaten to turn this into a History Channel-like examination of a supernatural boogeyman.
Scott returns with this knowledge, some of it heavily suggesting that he avoid Jones at all costs, given that his sculptures apparently haunt the dreams of one recipient (others, inexplicably, seem perfectly fine). Of course, Scott and Penny's concept of making a film about an elusive art figure is to break into his home with a camera. Even in the realm of horror films, these two are a couple of Norman Einsteins, proceeding to run around like doofuses, yelling at each other and touching Every. Single. Thing. The fact that Jones stares back at them wordlessly through a mask that might as well be made of human gristle doesn't seem to bother them. Thank you, masked troll of the woods, we will enter your home uninvited and fondle every item on your walls. With a camera!
"Mr. Jones" abruptly takes a right turn into the supernatural in its third act, calling into question the point of view we've seen throughout the film. Suddenly, this soggy storyline of dumbass interlopers in an otherworldly realm starts to drip into the metaphysical, involving dreamscapes and shifting identities. This would be a worthwhile extension of the storyline if only Mueller knew how to capture any spirited imagery, leaning on altered lighting to distinguish between the real and dream worlds. You can't really dip into dream logic if you have nary a single eye-popping visual, and in doing so, Mueller completely wastes a unique, potentially durable concept: just imagine a hooded monster in the woods making a side-living as an avant-garde darling of the art world. The movie you've now visualized in your head is probably a good deal more interesting than "Mr. Jones." [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.