You can read the signs or ignore them, but they won’t fade away. Mercury in Retrograde, from local writer/director Michael Glover Smith, takes three couples out of their city life to the decidedly quieter confines of a cabin in the woods just a few hours away in Michigan. Upon arrival, the couples, a mish-mash of old friends and new faces, break the ice by reading their horoscopes around the fire. Each person introduces themselves by dissecting these signs and portents and either claiming them true or discarding them as false. This is a lot of what Smith wants us to tease out of our examinations of each of the characters and each of the couples—what’s real and what might be just beneath the surface.
If you go into this film looking for the crescendo of a shared main conflict or a lot of moving parts, you won’t find it. Much like the pastoral nature of their surroundings, Mercury in Retrograde moves slowly and hints at problems for quite a while before they rear their heads. Alliances and tensions come and go, and people self-isolate or settle into a comfortable denial when they feel threatened by someone else around them.
The whole excursion is hosted by the amiable Jack, played effortlessly by Jack C. Newell, as the cabin everyone’s staying at belongs to his father. He and his wife, Golda (Alana Arenas) seem to be the most stable characters in the bunch, if stuck in the doldrums sometimes associated with very long term relationships. They’ve been married for 10 years, and have the cozy familiarity with each other that others long for, even as it seems those doldrums threaten Golda’s sense of self and security in the relationship.
Then there’s Peggy and Wyatt. Peggy’s opening scenes are a bit troublesome, but perhaps that’s more by design than we originally expected. Peggy, played by Najarra Townsend, seems over the top—in the way she speaks, in the drama dripping from every word, and the way she seems to hide behind her own smile. This is quickly picked up by the other women on the trip, creating an initial tension between Peggy and Isabelle (Roxane Mesquida), a beautiful French woman with razor sharp edges. Isabelle has come to the cabin with her incredibly built and perhaps initially dreamy boyfriend Richard (Kevin Wehby). It’s most readily apparent that these two have had better days, relationship-wise, and as the relaxed nature of the trip gives way to the effects of planets in retreat, we find that the tenuous romance between Richard and Isabelle has even lead to pain and conflict between Isabelle and Golda.
Golda is a wonderful, calming presence, and the performance by Alana Arenas was the real showstopper for me. She’s a well-rounded, complex character, at once the mother hen and mischievous girl’s girl, while possessing a depth of character and her own deep-seated insecurities. Arenas plays Golda in a way that makes her nearly impossible to dislike, and Golda proves to be the key to unlocking the secret worlds each person lives in.
The film sees each of the three couples mix and mingle with each other in different combinations, and one of its biggest struggles comes with the men’s trip to the disc golf course. Richard seems singularly obsessed with disc golf, and this could have added a needed note of comedy to bring some lightness to the film, but it’s played a little intensely, especially on the part of Wehby, lasting a little too long without a real contribution to the building action. Coupled with lingering shots of Richard with his head under the fountain and a bracing remix of a hymn over top, it was a moment that didn’t quite hit the mark.
The true conflict and truth begin to be revealed as the men and women split up again for the night—men staying behind for cigars and a book club, while the women head off to a dive bar for some fun. The fun doesn’t last long on the part of the ladies, though, as even though Isabelle and Peggy bury the hatchet, soon there are gentleman callers, the double-edged sword of alcohol among relative strangers, and some buried bitterness that rises to the surface. One of the more nuanced performances comes just prior to the bar, surprisingly in a sex scene between Isabelle and Richard, or more accurately, the aftermath. Here, Mesquida’s Isabelle softens, beautifully and wordlessly conveying the hopelessness she feels about her relationship.
At the bar, one pint of beer seems to be the catalyst for a world of troubles, with illicit flirtations and painful confessions flowing freely. Even Golda’s got trouble to drown. At the same time, the book discussion devolves into a conversation about masculinity and then the men’s perspectives on the same relationships being bandied about at the bar. Here is a more intense break, though, as we see Jack becoming more and more uncomfortable with Richard and his world view. While some of Mercury in Retrograde‘s conflicts come off a little cliché or in some cases, unbelievable, this tear in the fabric of Jack and Richard’s friendship after a wrong turn in a conversation about a book has a real authenticity.
As one relationship shows its cracks, another strengthens, and again Arenas is to be praised for her tenderness and warmth as she supports Peggy through her own confessions about a life gone off the rails and her struggle to keep that life hidden. Here is where I finally started to see Townsend’s acting chops emerge, as once the mask fell away, a more nuanced person could begin to breathe through her. All of life, and certainly all of this film is about ebb and flow—in romantic relationships, friendships and as time passes. Mercury in Retrograde is its own ebb and flow—sometimes too slow moving, sometimes bordering on cliché or slightly over the top, but also full of charm and some standout characters, with a more nuanced message just under the surface that makes it worth a viewing.
The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center Monday, February 19, at 7:45pm; Wednesday, February 21, at 7:45pm, with director Michael Glover Smith and producer/actor Shane Simmons appearing for audience discussion at both screenings. Cast member Jack Newell will appear as well following the February 21 screening.