Directed by Richard Bates, Jr.
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
Related Story: Everything About Excision
Who here hasn’t felt like an outsider from time to time? Separate from society, wishing and dreaming for another life where we find ourselves accepted for what we already are, rather than homogenizing ourselves to fit in with the rest of the herd. Genre cinema has often used misfits as protagonists, likely because a considerable portion of their audiences will relate to them. The latest offering of this type is Excision, a well-crafted if frustrating new feature from first-time writer/director Richard Bates, Jr.
Excision follows Pauline (McCord), a troubled young teen who daydreams of becoming a surgeon. And by daydreams, I mean she has candy-colored scalpel-and-blood-filled fantasies that’d make Argento blush. Pauline’s home life isn’t the greatest, what with her controlling mother Phyllis (Lords), emasculated father Bob (Bart), and unwell sister Grace (Winter), who’s afflicted with Cystic Fibrosis. Her time at school isn’t much better, as she’s typically looked down upon, sneered at, and even bullied.
One can understand why Pauline feels the need to escape reality through her dreams. She is a curious character though, in that she seems to instigate some of the problems that hold her down. She is quick to say something awkward in any situation, and can be downright rude to her peers before being attacked herself. She is also openly defiant to her parents from time to time, keeping a constant friction between she and her mother. Ultimately, though, Pauline’s hidden need for love and affection will ensure that her real life and dreamlife will eventually collide, in a climax that is as devastating as it is inevitable.
Excision, it should be noted, is an very well-made film, with beautiful photography, great acting, and some truly distressing imagery. It’s unfortunate then, that it is let down by its script. While the dialogue is often wickedly witty (reminding this viewer more than once of Heathers, high praise from me), the storytelling is incredibly episodic and rather aimless throughout. Rather than watching a single story unfold, it feels like the movie is made up of nothing more than tiny vignettes that have been strung together to form an almost feature-length tale. When mention of the film’s genesis as a short film was made during the provided audio commentary, it did not surprise. For all that is done well in the film, it never quite gels. And, as a result, it never becomes fully engrossing.
Still, there is plenty to praise here. As mentioned, the film looks wonderful, with distinct visual traits separating Pauline’s banal suburban existence from her more vivid, beautifully grisly dream life. According to Bates, the budget was quite low, but you’d never think of this production as one that was wanting for anything it needed. From the production design to the cinematography, it’s a wonderfully crafted film.
And those performances! Anna Lynne McCord, an actress I was unfamiliar with and who is apparently a “90210” reboot alum, is remarkable in the title role. Between the two of them, director Bates and McCord have created one of the more original characters to grace the genre in some time. Pauline could’ve easily been a poor misunderstood wretch in the Carrie vein, or a kickass rebel not unlike the Fitzgerald sisters from Ginger Snaps. Instead, Pauline manages to be intermittently sympathetic and infuriating, and truly unhinged as well. Undoubtedly Bates’ writing accounts for a good deal of that, but it’s McCord who is able to keep Pauline fully human and believable, rather than portraying her as a kooky oddball. And while McCord is a bombshell in real life, she’s able to play the willfully unattractive Pauline in a genuine way – inhabiting the character fully instead of simply “playing ugly” with makeup and dowdy clothing. I look forward to seeing more performances from her in the future.
Also worth noting is Traci Lords’ work in this film as well. She puts in great work as Phyllis, playing a domineering mother and wife who really just wants the best for her family. One imagines it might’ve been easy to simply portray the character as a stereotypical nagging bitch, but again the choice is made to create a realistic character, as opposed to a simple archetype. While we don’t always sympathize with her character’s actions, Lords does a fine job of making us understand the whys with each of Phyllis’ choices. And, while I won’t get spoilery, I will say that the final moment of the film between Lords and McCord is utterly chilling. The last seconds of each actress’ performance are heartbreaking and horrifying, in equal measure.
Roger Bart makes another welcome appearance to the genre as Pauline’s dad and Phyllis’ long-suffering husband. While he hardly gets the lion’s share of screen time, he is wonderful whenever his character appears. Also appearing in what are essentially extended cameos are Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, Ray Wise and John Waters. Kudos to Bates for wrangling these actors onto the project without it seeming like stunt casting, as each actor has a chance to give a real performance (as opposed to simply putting in an appearance for a quick paycheck).
The film comes to Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay, and boasts a sharp image and clear sound. Sadly, the only bonus feature included is an audio commentary with Bates and McCord. Fortunately, the talk between the two is a good one, as they spill plenty of fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes and detail the trials and tribulations of putting this low-budget, high-concept affair together. It’s well worth a listen for budding filmmakers, especially for an admission Bates gives concerning his debut feature: the young director points out that he used to be somewhat paranoid of dying (whether it be by simply driving down the street, or what have you), simply because he hadn’t yet had the chance to make a film. With that demon now exorcised, apparently Bates is far more carefree with his life. This should be a fairly relatable story to anyone wishing to make movies.
Ultimately, while I can’t quite give Excision a thumbs up, I will say that it’s still worth a look for the performances and filmmaking alone. And though the story isn’t as involving or compelling as one would hope, at least it’s original, and that’s worth something. Here’s hoping Mr. Bates has a stronger script in hand the next time he steps behind the camera, as I wish him well and look forward to the next tale he sees fit to direct.
2 1/2 out of 5
1 out of 5