Karl Mueller’s Mr. Jones is a wily, quasi-found-footage chiller that begins curiously, even promisingly, as an homage to, or parody of, reclusive auteur Terrence Malick. An overzealous kill-two-birds-with-one-stone type, Scott (Jon Foster) arrives at an obviously out-of-phone-range mountain retreat with his girlfriend, Penny (Sarah Jones), in order to mend their rocky relationship and, with extremely nice camera equipment, shoot “a nature documentary so beautiful people who saw it would never want to watch another film again.” What attracts this vanilla man of privilege to nature is of no consequence to Mueller, whose camera doubles as his protagonist’s own, hovering above the field-romping and hammock-swaying Scott and Penny as if the couple themselves were controlling it with a selfie stick. The classical music completes the possibly intended tribute to The Tree of Life, and after Scott comes into contact with a hooded stranger while recording one of many self-absorbed confessionals from a mountaintop, Mr. Jones announces itself as a weirdly satirical skewering of the media’s obsession with artists such as Banksy—condescendingly namedropped for our convenience—who painstakingly hide in the shadows while their work gathers cultural capital in the public eye.
Upon discovering a series of creepy wooden scarecrows near their cabin, Scott and Penny come to believe that they’re being tormented, or gifted, by a legend in the art world, whose work can fetch upward of seven figures if it can be authenticated. Naturally, Scott ditches his pretentious nature doc for a pretentious look at the appeal of Mr. Jones’s terrible stick figures to a clusterfuck of dismally acted art curators, dealers, and authors. Along the way, comparisons to Counting Crows’ famous earworm of the same name are impossible to shake, as Scott and Penny’s Mr. Jones suspect suggests a hooded Adam Duritz. Their encounters with the silent creepster, in and out of his subterranean lair, are spooky, but Mr. Jones ultimately warps into a self-absorbed ode to its own making. By film’s end, it implies through easy montage barfs of Scott’s unedited doc footage that the story’s boogeyman isn’t so much scaring Scott and Penny as the couple is scaring themselves by trying to unravel the mystery of his identity. Mueller asks us to look at his film as one might Mr. Jones’s art—to validate its authenticity using a barometer of fear. That it half succeeds, in spite of its cloying self-seriousness, means that it’s at best a convincing copycat of a definitive expression of ego and influence in art.