I Want To Be Inside You

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Excision is a coming-of-age-tragedy with vivisection.
Pauline is a girl with some problems. Puberty has left her gangly and acne-scarred. She doesn’t really have anything in the way of friends, and she’s a target for bullying by other girls. Her family life is dysfunctional and she has an antagonistic relationship with her mother. As if all that wasn’t enough, she’s also growing up in suburban Virginia, and butts heads with her society every day.

And when she closes her eyes at night, she dreams of cutting boys open and bathing in their gore.

As I said, Pauline has some problems.

Excision, the passion project of writer-director Richard Bates Jr., is the chronicle of two weeks in the life of Pauline and her family. While the premise of an outcast with a surgery fetish would be prime material for a slasher film, Excision is instead structured as a sympathetic character study of its protagonist. Pauline’s paraphilia is not treated as a secret; the film starts in one of her hemophiliac fantasies. Rather than relying on sudden violent shocks, the tension of the film is created through an uncomfortable dramatic irony. All of Pauline’s words and actions contain a terrible double meaning. While the other characters react in anger or confusion at her behavior, no one but the audience realizes that something has gone seriously wrong inside her head.

To pull off a character like Pauline necessitates a careful choice of actress, and on this front Excision succeeds in spades. Not being in the demographic that watches the new 90210, I had never heard of Annalynne McCord before this film, but her performance as Pauline has convinced me she can go places. Makeup and wardrobe do their part, of course, but McCord accomplishes the rare feat of completely inhabiting her role. Her Pauline is awkward, gangly, and gives the air of someone who doesn’t bathe that often. She walks with the hunch of the high school loner, and speaks with the outthrust jaw and clipped manner of the perpetually frustrated. When she interacts with others, she has no concern for matters of personal space. Even when she’s dolled up for an occasion, the oddity of Pauline still shines through. Only in her fantasies as a surgeon-dominatrix-general is she truly beautiful.

The emotional crux of the film is relationship between Pauline and her family, particularly with her mother, played by Traci Lords in a commanding performance. As the matriarch of the house, her mother is the sole authority within its walls, reacting to those who buck her law with insults and contempt. Overall, she’s not a particularly pleasant person, and the film occasionally mocks her attitudes and outlook on life. However, as the film progresses, some cracks appear in her façade, as her anxieties and her worry over her daughter’s behavior comes to the fore. She never does an about-face, but it does add nuance to her character, showing some of the pressure that compels her to play the autocrat. The biggest pressure on her and her family is Pauline’s younger sister Grace (Ariel Winter), who suffers from cystic fibrosis, the management of which takes up the lion’s share of the family’s time, money, and energy. As a result, Pauline’s problems are generally shunted off to the side, given stopgap solutions when they are noticed at all. Her outbursts are seen as outspoken teenage rebellion by her parents, partly because of an inability (or unwillingness) to understand the scope of their daughter’s problems, but also due to the fact that they simply don’t have the physical and mental resources to deal with another disintegrating child. Despite this, Pauline feels no ill will towards Grace, mostly because Grace is the only person in Pauline’s world that seems to care for her.

The story of Excision is a story of escalation and decay. Thanks to her home situation and her social awkwardness, Pauline lives her life in a void, with nothing but her fantasies running on a continuous loop through her head. The few authority figures from the community with which she interacts – her math teacher (Malcom McDowell), her school principal (Ray Wise), and her family church’s priest (John Waters, and yes, all three are actually in this movie) – all come off as condescending and clueless to varying degrees. None of them are capable of giving Pauline the help she needs. Indeed, Pauline has a vague awareness of her problem; she regularly asks her mother to send her to a certified psychiatrist, and her various outbursts have the mark of someone trying to force the issue. In the end, nothing she tries changes anything, leaving her alone with her bloody desires. As the film progresses, her fantasies grow to consume what remains of her life. Her academic standing and vestigial social life crumble as she throws more time into researching anatomy and in dissecting dead birds. She holds on to her dream of becoming a surgeon while fighting a passive-aggressive war against her math teacher. Meanwhile, in her dreams she grows from a humble necrophiliac into a bisexual goddess of viscera. She experiments with sex, with surgery, and with body modification. She seeks to master the world of the meat while never understanding any of it.

I will not spoil the ending in this review, even though it really is not that much of a surprise. Rather than being a straightforward condemnation of Pauline as a monster, the climax leavens the horror with tragedy. Pauline’s final act, rather than being an act of sexual hunger, is an act of love, but a love so twisted by Pauline’s hunger that it is monstrous. In the end, Excision is as much a tragedy as it is a horror movie. It is the tragedy of a society that does not accord mental illness the same respect as physical illness, that dismisses cries for help with the admonition “take some responsibility for their actions.” It is the tragedy of a family who did all they could for one daughter while another slipped away. It is, finally, the tragedy of Pauline, a lost girl who was eaten by her dreams.

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Comments (go to latest)
Melanie at 06:41 on 2013-10-20
Rather than relying on sudden violent shocks, the tension of the film is created through an uncomfortable dramatic irony. All of Pauline’s words and actions contain a terrible double meaning.

Well, now I have to see this.
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