While Oswego State graduate Mark Martino’s movie struggles with pacing and character devel- opment, “Merciless Playground” stands out as a brave accomplishment for both the young movie- maker and the cinema department he graduated from this past year.
The central character of “Merciless Playground” is Jack (Terence O’Kane) who is hospitalized and bound to a wheel chair. He does not speak, and the hospital’s employees gossip about Jack being “not all there.” O’Kane gives an impressive performance, showing great restraint in his body and allowing his eyes to tell Jack’s story.
Life at the hospital is broken up when Dr. Fred (Marshall Ennis) administers Jack a new medi- cine, a mysterious green liquid, which is fed to Jack by his car- ing nurse (Kim Martino-Dennison). As Dr. Fred and Jack begin spending more time together, it is revealed their relationship may contain more than meets the eye, as plenty of the movie’s emotional punch comes from their interactions. A haunting line from Martino’s script occurs when Dr. Fred tells Jack, “Your mind does not have to be a prison. It can be a playground,” an allusion to both the movie’s title and central metaphor.
With such an interesting main character, the movie hurts its deveopment by spending more time with underdeveloped “B” characters instead of Jack. The movie runs for just half an hour, and to be plain, there are too many characters for the story to support.
No character epitomizes this more than Jack’s father (John Fraustro), who shows up in several scenes, typically unannounced and unexplainably angry, only to leave the hospital without acknowledging his son. Following an emotional scene where Jack falls out of his wheelchair, Jack’s father enters the hallway through a side door – it was not established that he was even in the hospital – and begins to angrily draw attention to the situation, loudly questioning if this is the type of service that his money pays for. Jack’s father always seems to be shouting at somebody, but at no point does his anger seem motivated by sadness for his disabled son.
Having Jack’s biological father as a character seems like something Martino wanted, as opposed to needed. I would have loved to see Jack’s father actually talk about the pain it must give him to see his son disabled, instead of just huffing and puffing about his wallet.
The movie’s most dynamic character is Dr. Fred, as Martino chose to spend a lot of time building that character and his relationship with his wife, Mary (Carrie Mondore). The scenes with Dr. Fred and Mary had the largest issues with pacing, as there did not seem to be much chemistry between the two characters and the tempo of their dialogue was seldom in sync.
Early in the movie, Dr. Fred comes home to Mary, who is home alone, and the scene wrongly comes off mysterious due to an uneven pace and an absence of underscoring. In another scene between the two characters, Mary specifically asks Dr. Fred not to leave her alone at a dinner party, to which Dr. Fred promptly leaves her by herself for most of the evening, with nothing in the plot motivating his disregard for her feelings. After the party, she hardly brings up that he let her down, and so the plot point goes to waste.
Even with question marks in both the plot and pacing, the greatest accomplishment that this movie makes is combining an intriguing main story line with wonderful imagery. The opening scene of the movie exemplifies this well, as Martino’s direction is very ominous. Ten-year-old Jack (Cody White) rides his bike through an open park and near a playground. He eventually meets a fellow classmate (Maya Heimes), and the two share an innocent conversation drawing on the preciousness of life.
Jack wishes to come back to the playground the following day to see her, but he does not get the chance, as we witness the car accident that leaves Jack paralyzed before he can get home. Martino blocked a very effective scene, as White and Andrea Castro as the driver in the accident provide some of the deepest emotion of the movie.
Martino and Jeffrey Newell (cinematographer) shine in what can be argued to be the department’s most significant project to date. “Merciless Playground” is both a tearjerker and a cerebral piece that leaves the audience thinking about what they watched longer than it took them to watch it. As Martino continues to develop his skills as both a screenwriter and director, it will be interesting to watch what new characters he can introduce to us.