Urban nightmare dissolves into psychodrama in “Mercy,” a kidnap thriller that gets the nightmare part right but stumbles badly with the psychological posturing. Theatrical distribs no doubt will be put off by the film’s final reel , when the plot takes an almost surrealistic spin into the guilt-drenched psyche of the main character and leaves behind the more effective nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the gritty kid-stealing storyline. Fest slots are possible, and maybe a latenight cable run, but film serves mostly as a calling card for writer-director Richard Shepard.
Opening moments set a mood of nervous realism, with little schoolgirl Nicole (Rhea Silver-Smith) hopping into the car of a teenage girl she clearly knows well: Ruby (Amber Kain), estranged daughter of the maid who works in Nicole’s wealthy Upper East Side household.
Audience will catch on to Ruby’s criminal plans before Nicole, if only by the presence in the car of Ruby’s slimy boyfriend Matty (Sam Rockwell).
First half of the film is a fairly standard kidnap plot, no less effective for its familiarity. Nicole’s father, an aggressive, callous New York lawyer named Frank Kramer (John Rubinstein) is put through hell by the kidnappers as he’s ordered to race from one pay phone to another to receive ransom directions.
Film taps into — or exploits, depending on one’s viewpoint — white urban angst by sending the upper-crust, tuxedo-clad lawyer into the most desolate reaches of Harlem (where he’s attacked and beaten by drug dealers) and seedy Times Square (where he’s confronted by an aggressive transvestite hooker).
Film gradually reveals that the true motivation behind the kidnapping isn’t ransom: The lawyer once had sex with young Ruby, and now the girl’s out for revenge.
The revelation, along with bitter (and unconvincing) accusations made by his ex-wife and his maid, sends the attorney into a shame spiral, which inconceivably has him leaving his FBI-packed apartment and wandering the seamier locales of New York City in search of either punishment or mercy for his sins. Picture bottoms out in an unintentionally humorous scene in which the lawyer seeks deliverance from a near-naked and totally deranged gun-dealing black man (racial issues remain confused throughout the movie).
Shepard also trips up by showing, in flashback, the seduction scene between lawyer and teenage girl that prompted all the trouble: The girl clearly is the seducer, and that development misguidedly injects a woman (or girl) scorned element into a film that ostensibly is about a bad man’s fall from, and rise to, grace.
The confusion is furthered by the casting of Rubinstein, a good actor who’s altogether too likable to be the monster necessary to make the plot work. Nor can he pull off the action scenes late in the film.
Rest of the performances are mixed, with Kain standing out in a nervous, edgy turn as the kidnapper. Rockwell also impresses as Kain’s partner in crime.
Tech credits are in keeping with low-budget stature, although Shepard rises above limitations by taking good advantage of New York locales.
Shepard also has a good feel for Gotham dialogue and the fear arising from culture clash, both of which fuel first-half suspense. Had he been content with making a kidnap actioner rather than a psychodrama, “Mercy” would need little forgiveness.