Perhaps in passing, a friend remarks that Mercury is in retrograde. Though usually couched in somewhat foreboding terms, NASA defines retrograde motion as an “APPARENT (caps courtesy of NASA) change in the movement of the planet through the sky.” It is not REAL (caps, again, courtesy of NASA) in that the planet does not physically start moving backward in its orbit. It just appears to do so because of the relative positions of the planet and Earth and how they are moving around the Sun. To astrologists, svengalis, and soothsayers, the three or four times of year when the planet Mercury APPEARS (caps courtesy of the reviewer) to be moving away from the earth portends that a whole lot of gnarly shit is about to go down as Mercury is believed to govern communication, travel, and learning.
Michael Glover Smith’s 2017 drama Mercury in Retrograde, focuses upon three couples who have spirited off to a secluded cabin in the Michigan woods to get away from the urban bluster of Chicago as this celestial event kicks into high gear. Now, as an acolyte of schlock cinema, at this point I thought the stars had aligned for a by-the-numbers horror flick – an isolated cabin (in Michigan!), a somewhat nebulous/spooky title, and boozed-up/sexed-up couples all clustered together as relationship discord brews in the background. All that was missing was the discovery of an evil book of the dead or a vengeful mother with an affinity for large cutlery. And, the film did turn out to be quite disquieting though not in the manner that I was hoping for. Instead of a nouveau take on Friday the 13th, Mercury in Retrograde devolves into an endurance test of Big Chill-esque proportions about the nature of communication, intimacy, and friendship.
“Come nightfall the couples soon repair to their separate rooms and the seams in their respective relationship become apparent…”
With the intertitle “Friday,” we are introduced to the three couples around which the film orbits – new girlfriend Peggy and boyfriend Wyatt; catty Isabelle and frisbee golf devotee Richard; and long-married couple Golda and Jack – as they lounge outside the cabin and Peggy reads their horoscopes. A brief aside: both Golda and Jack are at least 15 years older than the other two couples in this flick. How and why they have bonded with this group of millennials is never explained and rather perplexing. But I digress.
Come nightfall the couples soon repair to their separate rooms and the seams in their respective relationship become apparent. Isabelle begins sowing dissension with her observation that Peggy is trying “too hard” to bond with the rest of the group. Golda and Jack snuggle affectionately while a palpable sense tension looms in the background. And a pensive Peggy tells a half-awake Wyatt that she wants to tell him something yet never completes her thought. Peggy also remarks about how creepy it is that the windows have no curtains. Here, again, I was convinced that some lunatic with garden weasels for hands was going to descend upon the entire party. But, alas, it was not to be.
The next morning, the women practice yoga together while the guys head out for the anticipated game of frisbee golf. Another brief aside: up until this point, no soundtrack or music had been utilized at any time in the film. When Wyatt, Jack, and Richard begin their game, the cinematography (solidly shot and making good use of the natural light and verdant surroundings) switches inexplicably into slow motion. Then, a shrill rendition of the 1876 hymn “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” is cranked up. Here, again, I surely thought that such a creepy tune could only portend impending doom was about to be unleashed on all in the radius of the cabin. Alas, it was not to be as all couples returned with limbs and psyches intact.
“…an insightful melodrama about the communication barriers between men and women…”
Later that evening, the women head into town where they end up in a bar. In one of the most well-constructed scenes in the film, the three female friends share their favorite poems while musing upon the nature of love under the glow of the crimson bar lights. However, when the inebriated Isabelle drifts away to hook up with a fellow bar patron, Peggy reveals several very intimate, unsettling details to Golda about her past which create a seismic shift in tone on par with Phoebe Cates’ infamous rotting-dad-stuck-in-chimney-during-Christmas monologue in Gremlins. Meanwhile, the guys – cigars and booze at hand – convene a meeting of their book club (?) at the cabin. They dissect Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key” and make grand pronouncements about the nature of relationships as the camera, untethered from its tripod, begins to bob and weave. Here, again, I thought a I thought things were about to take a turn for macabre. But, alas, it was again not to be.
The film limps into Sunday with the late introduction of the owner of the cabin, Jack’s dad, Jack Sr. who enlists the three couples in the baking of cinnamon rolls while spouting hackneyed wisdom about the nature of being. An aside: the casting of Jack Sr. was quite confusing as he couldn’t have been more than a decade older than his son, Jack Jr.
After a glacial and uneven 105 minutes, it was terribly APPARENT (caps again courtesy of the reviewer) to me that the film was firmly not going devolve into a paean to the Evil Dead trilogy. Rather, aiming to be an insightful melodrama about the communication barriers between men and women, and the true meaning of love and connection, Mercury in Retrograde is hoisted on its own petard and ends up distancing rather than embracing salient topics it attempts to tackle.
Mercury in Retrograde (2017) Directed by Michael Glover Smith. Starring Najarra Townsend, Roxane Mesquida, Kevin Wehby, Shane Simmons, Jack C. Newell, and Alana Arenas.
2 out of 5 stars