Excision (2012)

Heal the sickness.
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Excision - Heal the Sickness

It's still a relatively rare thing for a short film to be adapted up into a feature-length film: I saw the short film version of Excision a few years ago and liked it, though I wondered how well its nightmarish non-sequiturs would transmit to a longer format. The answer to that question is 'problematically, in places'. However, what the film does very well is to establish a striking aesthetic, particularly in its many dream/fantasy sequences, and the quality of these scenes alone kept me interested, even though at times it felt as though the plot existed just to support these grotesque asides.

Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is a troubled teen, and her troubled nature is painted in very broad strokes here. Coming across for all the world like a daemonic Ally Sheedy in her Breakfast Club role, Pauline is creaking under the weight of social ostracism, a domineering mother (played with pursed-mouth propriety by the doyenne of 80s porn and erstwhile cult movie star, Traci Lords) and those pesky hormones, which in Pauline's case lead to intricate sexual fantasies typically deluged in blood and gore. Before long, these, erm, "niche" daydreams are starting to creep into her waking world too. Her determination to lose her virginity while she's "up on blocks" makes for a warped rite of passage (not to mention a stunningly grisly dream deflowering) but her single-minded desire to be a surgeon – regardless of the way she's flunking most of her classes – leads her to start taking matter(s) into her own hands. Pauline hopes she can redeem herself by becoming a medic; maybe she can even make Mom proud and help out her beloved sister Grace, who suffers from cystic fibrosis.

Of course, no one as damaged as Pauline can realistically hope to achieve these aims. She is, by her own parents' description, "delusional", and we see ample evidence of this. The rest of the film examines – obliquely – the inevitable crash-course between Pauline's literal bloody-mindedness and real life. It's an unsettling, aesthetically-pleasing and, yeah, sometimes baffling trip.

There was a hell of a lot I liked about this film. Sure, it felt at times as though director/writer Richard Bates Jr. had just thought of interesting ways to develop aspects of his original short, at the expense of spending time crafting the coherent characterisation or plot usually required of a nearly-ninety minute story. In nearly all cases, this would be a deal-breaker with me; I love pieces of art and I love cinema, but they are not interchangeable, which is why arthouse movies often come in for a justifiably rough ride. I will say I found that the unhappy American family felt blown up to cartoonish proportions, and, despite the calibre of those providing cameos – Malcolm McDowell, John Waters, Ray "OMG it's Leland Palmer" Wise – those actors felt rather underused.

There are undeniably, then, problems with Excision. However, for all of that, and despite the sense that all of our characters are regarded in passing rather than the focus of the film, Excision wins out over a film with surprisingly similar subject matter and a lot of identical issues (American Mary) simply because it weaves a superior sense of atmosphere – in my ever-humble opinion, of course. It's all in the style, which Excision has in spades. Every scene is framed and photographed beautifully. I didn't notice how much of an artist's eye was at play here until I did some screencapping from the film earlier on and spotted just how beautiful the symmetry, lighting and framing really were. As for what we get to see, the high weirdness of the hallucinatory sequences with their blood, fucking and foetuses is infinitely interesting to look at. As idiosyncratic scenes in movies go, these are amongst the most compelling I've seen on my screen in quite some time. And there is other stuff going on: the film has its own strange currents of humour (some of the jokes land, some don't) and the McCord/Lords interplay is definitely entertaining. Pauline may spend a lot of time earlier on in the film chewing the scenery, but she does a good job of displaying her awkward insularity nonetheless, and she definitely improved on me. She's not perfect, but oddly engrossing, and yes, I did feel some sympathy with her.

So – already knowing how the film would conclude, having seen the short version – does Excision merit its extension into a feature-length? I would say that yes, it does, although this extension does amplify the issues which, in a short, would probably not be around long enough for this to be a major problem. Sometimes Excision struggles under its own weight. As much as it does so, though, it still has something to say, and much to show its audience. It's a testament to a sound directorial eye, it's visually ambitious, and for those who like their cinema strange and alienating, this is a resolutely strange and alienating piece of work.
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