Excision

Richard Bates Jr, 2012

Excision is an incredibly daring film from a first-time director, by turns challenging, funny and deeply, deeply disgusting. Comparisons have been made to Ginger Snaps, Carrie and particularly Lucky McKee’s May, and while I can certainly see that, this is a considerably nastier piece of work that carries a vicious sting in its tail. If you’re looking for something feel-good or redemptive, look elsewhere, as this is one of those movies that could ruin your whole day.

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90210 seems a long way away.

90210′s AnnaLynne McCord plays impressively against type as Pauline, an awkward, profoundly troubled teenager struggling to cope with her overbearing, deeply religious mother (played by ex-pornstar Traci Lords) and a kid sister dying of cystic fibrosis (Ariel Winter, Modern Family). Strapped for cash, her family can’t afford an actual therapist, instead sending her to their ill-equipped family priest (John Waters, which says a lot about this movie right there) for counselling.

Pauline dreams of being a surgeon, a fixation that bleeds through into her dreams and fantasies, where sex and death come together in all kinds of troubling ways. Far from being a typical bullied victim, she’s wildly aggressive and confrontational, actively seeking to freak out her classmates and use them to her advantage as she sees fit. McCord commits entirely to the character with a truly physical performance, with everything from her greasy, unkempt exterior to disastrous posture and jutting, threating jaw transforming her into something almost unrecognisable from her mainstream teen-idol day job. According to interviews she had to push relentlessly to land the part as the filmmakers didn’t believe she could pull it off, but here she proves herself entirely.

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Patience is not one of her virtues. Virtues in general don’t figure highly.

It’s difficult to discuss this one without spoiling exactly what happens, suffice to say Excision is a film that seems to delight in playing with its audience. While spending so much of its running time as a pitch black dramatic comedy, the tonal shifts, when they arrive, can be devastating. It’s all too easy to fall prey to the expectations of how a typical ‘quirky’ loner movie tends to play out, even when the signs are there all along in Pauline’s vividly repulsive dreams and increasingly sociopathic behaviour. It’s a story that could never end well, but you don’t quite realise how true that is until it all starts to come apart. That this bait-and-switch works so well is a testament to Bates’ deftness of touch with what in lesser hands would be some instantly repellent material.

On the negative side, the film occasionally betrays its origins as an expanded short and can feel a little aimless and scattershot in places, but the uniformly strong performances (including memorable cameos from Twin Peaks‘ Ray Wise and A Clockwork Orange‘s Malcolm McDowell) and impressive direction carry it through. And as mentioned earlier, the explicit grotesquerie and nihilism may prove too much for more than a few.

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One of the least explicit moments from the nightmarish dream sequences.

I haven’t felt so gut-punched by a movie in a very long time, not since Pascal Laugier’s relentlessly bleak Martyrs. I can’t stress strongly enough that this will not be a film for everyone. For quite some time after watching it, I wasn’t sure it was for me, either. Any curious viewers not familiar with the genre should at least start with May first, as this is strong stuff and not one for the uninitiated. If you’re willing to give it a try, you’ll find an aggressively bold psychological horror that will stick with you for a long time to come.

 

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