Saturday, October 15, 2011

May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

Lucky McKee's May belongs to the small group of horror films as likely to make you cry as scream. Its protagonist rates with the children of Let the Right One In and The Devil's Backbone and any Lon Chaney performance as one of the most unsettling but affecting characters put on the screen. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller adds a splash of sadness to his biting satire when he describes the childhood of unwitting officer Major Major with a grimly funny but painfully real summary: "Because he needed a friend so desperately he never found one." The same sentiment hangs over May, its titular character secluded all her life for her lazy eye, the social alienation carrying into her adulthood where she cannot find pals even after taking steps to correct her condition. By this point, the physical deformation is secondary to her malformed social skills.

But McKee's mise-en-scène reflects May's eye, casting askew glances at synecdochical body parts upon which May fixates. In so doing, the director at once deconstructs the male gaze and creates a new female gaze that is no less disturbing for its fetishistic intensity. For May, the phrase "nobody's perfect" functions not as a comforting call to acceptance of her physical abnormality but a maddening reminder that she can never find the perfect person to offset all her years of loneliness. She knows she'll probably only ever have one friend, so she needs that companion to be perfect.

McKee layers a significant amount of information in the opening seconds, throwing in recurring images, presaging the conclusion with a shot from the end of the film, and establishing a mood, the shot of fabric being cut and sewn dotted with a drop of blood that stains the innocence of the quaint activity. The distinct, unsettling images—the eerily childlike sewing, the rain of dolls, the agonized, bloody screaming—evoke thematic and atmospheric richness, saying more about the stunted growth of its as-yet introduced protagonist than the whole of Black Swan's fun but reductive sub-Freudian diagnoses. A brief establishing sequence follows, showing a girl forced to wear an eye patch over her perilously drooping eye and withdrawing from her classmates because of it. At a birthday party attended only by some pitying adults, May's mother gives her a homemade doll too special to be played with and intended as a substitute for human companionship. "If you can't find a friend," chirps the mom, "make one."

As an adult, May (Angela Bettis), has internalized a life of shyness but continues to hope for a real friend. Her insularity manifests itself in the form of obsessive fixation on specific parts she likes. She crushes on a local guy named Adam (Jeremy Sisto), but while she likes all of him, nearly all we see of him before they interact comes in the form of extreme close-ups on his hands. At the veterinary clinic where she works, May obliviously finds herself the target of flirtation by her lesbian coworker Polly (Anna Faris), a flirtation she stokes when she abruptly notes how beautiful the woman's neck is. These minute fetishes slowly stack up as May meets more people and McKee's anti-male gaze shots are as funny as they are off-putting.

But their creepiness wouldn't work if McKee didn't keep cutting back to an actress who could subtly communicate that increasing obsession, and Bettis is a marvel. Bettis' sharp features, down to her straight but lightly serrated smile, are attractive but strangely preserved and surreal. Hollow cheeks, slightly bulging eyes, and a forehead exposed in bulbous presence by pulling the hair create a play of individual features on Bettis' face, all of them symmetrical but never quite meshing. She resembles a living doll, a freak looking to be a real girl. Her jittery, nervous advancements suggest that May lives in a glass case like her doll's, and the cracks that start to form in the doll's case after an accident make a clear symbol for May's slow fragmentation.

Having never enjoyed proper human contact, May has no idea how to hold a conversation, and the calmness with which she speaks of dark thoughts and memories proves almost as scary as the eventual bloodbaths. Speaking to Adam, she relates an anecdote of stitching up a dog with weak sutures, only for the owner to come home later to find the poor beast disemboweled with blood smeared all over the fences. May talks as if relating a fun story, wholly oblivious to the look of utter horror on Adam's face. Even May's attempts to help the next generation of children, in this case a school for the blind, goes terribly awry and sparks the symbolic break from reality that leads to the grim climax.

What makes May so fascinating is how often it resembles less a horror movie than an indie exercise in extreme quirk. Polly's dressing like she's going out to the club when she comes in to file paperwork at the clinic, the student film about cannibalism Adam made that arouses May, May's homemade outfits; everything could play as indie comedy with but the slightest variations. But McKee finds the loneliness and confusion of what is usually used as a prop, casting these oddballs as strangely believable within a world that seems outside their ken. Even the otherwise normal Adam clearly has some degree of interest in May, and his reassuring statement, "I like weird" contains some truth. He likes that sense of quirk, but when he uncovers the madness under the oddity, he recoils.

But just because McKee finds the morose relatability under comic strangeness doesn't mean May is bereft of laughter. May's erotic response to the cannibal student film Adam made is creepy, but she turns that awkwardness into an uneasy laugh when she critiques one aspect of the film: "I don't think she could have gotten his finger off in one bite though." Later, as a dejected May sits waiting for a bus, a punk with hair so madly composed his gelled strands resemble less spikes than spiracles drawn by Dr. Seuss. Yet the first thing that comes out of this leather-clad greaser is a soft, considerate, "Are you OK?" After briefly chatting up May, he invites her to get some Jujubes. It's a fun dig at the punk image, but also kind of sweet, and I was surprised how quickly I felt sorry for poor Blank after he unwittingly stepped into the realm of a woman past the point of no return.

And when the film finally moves into her unhinged actions, McKee yet again subverts expectations by framing kills in such a way as to be eerie but too sudden and unforced to be easy scares. No music plays over the deaths in this film, and May's kills are as swift and almost elegant as the scalpels she uses to easily slice open veins and arteries. McKee isn't out to scare, though he certainly succeeds in shocking.

A shot of blood swirling with spilled milk adds to the rampant symbolism of the film, the penetrative act of a stab mingling with semen-like fluid. This shot specifically suggests a sexual subtext not immediately clear elsewhere until one realizes that, unlike his far more direct new film, The Woman, McKee isn't pushing a specifically feminist idea through horror but is deepening what a woman in horror "can" do. May is neither victim nor monster, though she is a bit of both. Rather, she exists outside generic molds that assign women into the slut, final girl and villain roles ad nauseam. She's pitiable but disturbing, violent but longing, and she's one of the few characters from the last decade of increasingly grisly, meaningless horror films worth caring about.

Her final actions speak to a despair that punctures the screen with far more effect than even the shock of her mutilation of others and self. Her quest to assemble a friend out of the body parts she so eerily idolized add an extra dimension of sorrow to the already wrenching Frankenstein story, for here the monster is being made to make up for the seeming absence of any real person who will love May. The quiet, hallucinatory last shot made me shudder, but it also brought tears to my eyes. Admittedly, I'm no expert on horror, but when's the last time anyone could say such a thing of the genre's modern output?


  1. This is definitely one of my favorite films of the last decade. I loved how quirky it is but also the way the violence is portrayed. I so love Angela Bettis' performance.

    BTW, you know that Rian Johnson, the director of Brick, edited the film and discovered Nora Zehetner in this film as she played Sisto's date towards the end of the film?

  2. Jake - I am catching up with your site and am so so pleased to hear your thoughts on this film, which has had me in its grip since I first saw it. Wonderful analysis. A real psychological study.