Written and Directed by: Richard Bates, Jr.
Starring: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords and Ariel Winter
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Heal the sickness.
Excision is one of the grossest movies Iíve seen in quite some time, but itís not a gross-out movie. At first, itís easy to mistake it for one, especially when itís displaying an offbeat juvenile streak that invites you to chuckle along with some of its more outrageous moments. When John Waters pops up as a Catholic priest (doubling as a therapist), youíre inclined to think that Excision is going to be a weird black comedy in the camp tradition. But as it continues to creep along, it becomes more apparent that youíre not watching a John Waters movie at all; instead, Excision is the spiritual successor to Todd Solondz in its ability to cut through its eccentricity and find a morbid but affecting coming-of-age story centered around an outcast teenage girl.
Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is a very atypical teen girl--which makes her a very typical protagonist in this sort of movie. Perpetually awkward and tomboyish, Pauline lives under the tyranny of an overbearing mother (Traci Lords) and an ineffectual father (Roger Bart), neither of whom really get her. Of course, you can hardly blame them since she frequently fantasizes about sex and death all at once; when sheís not holding conversations with a god she doesnít believe in, sheís operating on dead animals in an attempt to prepare for a future career as a surgeon. As the perils of navigating high school mount, she must also contend with her little sisterís (Ariel Winter) ongoing battle with cystic fibrosis, and both cause her to become unhinged.
The horror genre has drawn from this well several times; when it isnít asking girls to be damsels in distress or the last one standing against some masked slasher, horror has painted some of the most compelling portraits of the female mind (and body) in all of cinema. Excision is another one, and itís a pure character study; its narrative is rather formless, as writer/director Richard Bates instead prefers to hover around Pauline and capture the various episodes in her life. The constants include her motherís attempts to somehow understand and rehabilitate her by sending her to the unqualified priest and even a social formal, with both ending rather badly. Initially, this sort of stuff is actually kind of funny; sure, Pauline seems to have a few screws loose, but Bates almost presents her as an admirable outsider whoís just a little different. Excision brilliantly lulls you into thinking this before it finally delivers a series of gut punches to reveal the disturbing depths of a completely shattered psyche.
By the time itís ended, Excision hasnít just snuck up on you--itís tip-toed behind you and shoved a knife firmly in your back, and youíre left wondering just how it spiraled out of control so quickly. The tale that eventually emerges feels like one of those really fucked up stories you hear about on the news where someone commits some unfathomable atrocity; we often hear these stories and write it off as the act of an insane person, as if thatís supposed to be a comforting notion. Excision peels back that notion and provides a glimpse into one such story and exposes how many other factors can contribute to and enable the insanity in the first place. Thereís little doubt that Pauline is suffering from some sort of mental instability, but the real tragedy is everyoneís unwillingness to confront it until itís too late. A scene featuring her exasperated principal (Ray Wise) writing her off and suspending her from school while a copy of Sybil rests on his bookshelf seems pointedly ironic in retrospect.
Bates places viewers in the same position with his sense of escalation; at the outset, weíre laughing off Paulineís weird advances and interactions as the behavior of a maladjusted teenage girl. By the end, weíre in the same place as her neighbors and classmates who never would have anticipated the horrible acts she commits--but maybe we should have all seen it coming. For much of the film, I had pegged Excision as yet another takedown of Americana and suburban perfection, which it is; however, it seemed to be arriving there with outright satire and parody. After all, it has the obvious winks: not only does bad taste maestro Waters show up as a priest, but youíve got former porn star and minor B-movie queen Lords as the uptight shrew who suffocates her daughter with Catholic guilt. And the gross stuff is truly disgusting while simultaneously being played for laughs, a move that similarly sets up the true horrors of the visceral stuff later in the film.
Thereís a certain broadness to this that would make it easy for the film to slip into a straightforward black comedy, but McCord finds an incredible amount of humanity in Pauline. Playing way against type, the typically blonde, bubbly actress is dressed down into ugly duckling mode. With her face covered in blemishes and framed by unkempt hair, McCord strikingly transforms herself into a hunched over, boyish wallflower; interestingly enough, Paulineís persona doesnít quite match her appearance. Sheís often quite forward with her peers, including boys, and she doesnít avoid her unhealthy preoccupation with sex; for her, itís something thatís treated with all the reverence of a business transaction, something that needs to be accomplished so she can move on to some other endeavor.
Paulineís a strange, alluring presence, and McCord easily delivers the teenage snark and sarcasm, but, more importantly, she finds the wounded, vulnerable quality that ultimately makes her tragic. The crucial element is Paulineís relationship with her sister; Grace is the opposite of Pauline--cute, outgoing, and totally well-adjusted, but thereís no sense of resentment or rivalry. Instead, the two seem to understand each other in their unspoken bond, and itís this connection that keeps Pauline from being perceived as a complete monster. Excision would completely unravel if this werenít the case. It flourishes because of it, perhaps unexpectedly; Batesís script wryly floats and hops about before delivering a stunning knockout blow.
Excision is Batesís feature debut and was actually extended from a previous short. It's the work of a seasoned pro; visually, the film is often hypnotic, particularly when Bates explores the horrifying inner workings of Paulineís mind, which is populated by half nude bodies, blood, and her own alter-ego, a sultry, blonde bombshell persona thatís vying to take control in reality as well. More importantly, the film marks the arrival of a unique voice that actually has something to say, and this always welcome in this genre; perhaps even more exciting is that it actually ponders the feminine plight--one can argue that societyís expectations of proper womanhood contribute to Paulineís psychosis as much as anything. In this respect, Excision can easily sidle up alongside May and Teeth in the modern canon of films that have taken outcast teen girls as their subject. After touring the festival circuit all year, Excision is coming to Blu-ray this week courtesy of Anchor Bay, whose disc features a strong presentation for the film. Visually, the transfer is rock solid, and this is never more evident than during the scenes where Pauline is surrounded by complete darkness and the black levels completely hold up. The release is a bit light on extras, as thereís only a commentary with McCord and Bates, but the film itself is more than worth a look. Fascinating, stirring, and genuinely disturbing, Excision lingers long after the provocative gross-out shocks have passed. Buy it!
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