Mesmerize Me is frustratingly middling. It keep seems like it has to be going somewhere, only for it to go nowhere. It’s not a short short—it’s twenty-four minutes—and there’s a disjointed act structure. The third act is way too short, leveraging the “twist” ending way too much. Only it’s not a twist ending. It’s not exactly predictable, but only because it’s such an unbelievably tepid finish you don’t want to anticipate it. You’re hoping for something better.
The short is a period piece set in the late 1800s California. Good costumes, okay locations, not great attention to detail on making things dirty—clothes and people, competent direction, shallow but not inept cinematography (by Cat Deakins), and good music (by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum). If it were even slightly sensational, Mesmerize Me might at least come off as a romance novel cover turned into a movie. But it’s not sensational. At all. Even when it ought to be, like when lead Natalie Smyka seduces her opium-addicted fake doctor Cameron Cash while her parents are asleep elsewhere in the house.
Me opens perfectly solidly with Smyka seeing the ghostly apparition of her dead fiancé (Ned Hosford). Smyka’s really good running around in a panic and she’s got great expressions throughout the short. She doesn’t have any good line deliveries, but her expressions are awesome. Though it’s never believable she likes Cash at all because Cash is unlikable. Not because of the opium or because he’s a know-it-all. Cash is a mesmerist. Either Mesmerize Me takes place in a fantasy world where mesmerism isn’t bullshit or it takes place in some kind of reality. Writer (and director and editor) Hackett implies the latter a lot, but never definitely says the former is out. If we’re supposed to accept the ending, we also have to take Cash believing in his own “powers” too.
Also problematic is how it always seems like the characters are going to have a good conversation than Hackett cuts the shot. After a while (where the runtime works against the short)… it seems like Hackett’s cutting away from even worse line deliveries. Like it’s obvious Smyka and Cash couldn’t handle more.
Sarah Lilly plays Smyka’s mom. She’s kind of disappointing too. John Beck is fine as the dad, though his lack of interest in his daughter’s condition doesn’t come across right.
Hackett’s direction and editing instincts are often good; they can’t save Me from itself.
Written, directed, and edited by Kate Hackett; director of photography, Cat Deakins; music by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum; production designer, Matthew C.W. Page; produced by Nora Gruber, Hackett, Brian Maddox, Bette Stockton, and Christopher Stockton for Sonambula Productions.
Starring Natalie Smyka (Estella), Cameron Cash (Daniel), Sarah Lilly (Eliza), John Beck (Lawrence), and Ned Hosford (Stephen).