Our Lady of Perpetual Deception
It's impossible to write about Mediatrix* without getting into spoilers. If you have any interest in seeing a film about backwoods spiritual mediums; Tarantino-inspired, coke-snorting angels; and (possibly) the end of the world, I highly recommend watching Cory Udler's new film and then returning to this review.
Welcome back! Okay, down to business:
As you may know, Udler is the creator of the Incest Death Squad films, the second of which made my Top Ten list last year. Despite their raunchy titles and twisted premises, these are anything but standard stalk-and-slash horror movies. I wasn't the biggest fan of part one, but in the sequel, Udler appeared to kick his emotional and creative investment into overdrive. Incest Death Squad 2 features some great performances, a story that expands the backwoods mythology, and, thanks to Udler's expert music choices and inventive filming techniques, an overall feel vibe of professional filmmaking that was not nearly as apparent the first time around.
With Mediatrix, the director has sidestepped the horror genre and entered the realm of the psycho-spiritual drama. He's assisted this time by co-writer/star Paula Duerksen, who appeared briefly as a doomed prostitute in IDS2. She plays Mary Ann Van Hook, a Wisconsin native who's grown up believing that she has an indirect line to God. Her crazy mother, Faith (Heather Renken), believes that she, too, has otherworldly gifts, and spent much of Mary Ann's childhood pimping out their abilities to the community. An early molestation severed Mary Ann's divine connection, and she turned to a life of prostitution, drugs, and blasphemy--while Faith continued her reasonably priced efforts to guide and save lost souls.
One of Faith's customers is Carrie (Kaylee Williams), a young girl struggling with infertility and a cold husband. Mary Ann discovers that Carrie is married to William (Michael Katzenberger), the old, obese pervert whose sexual advances drained her of her innocence and powers. In the process of scheming to destroy William, she winds up facilitating the birth of the Antichrist through Carrie, after introducing her to two demented angels and a slutty, dope-slinging Virgin Mary (Shannon Lark).
This film's brilliance lies in the fact that, from a story perspective, we're never quite sure which version of reality is true. Was Mary Ann really touched by God and then cast out of His grace after being robbed of her purity? Or did Faith simply teach her daughter that she was capable of performing miracles, and then convince the rest of the world that all the women in their line had been similarly gifted? Are Mary Ann's interactions with Mary and angels Gabriel (Joe Hollow) and Stu (Greg Johnson) real, or figments of a mind warped by years of physical, spiritual, and chemical abuse?
You can approach Mediatrix from any of these angles and wind up with three very different films. But unlike recent exercises in precious ambiguity like Drive or Martha Marcy May Marlene, Udler and Duerksen account for all of these possibilities with tight storytelling. Even though the ending is left up in the air, the audience is left with enough information about the characters, their motivations, and their circumstances to conclude that the closer is either a chilling, Twilight Zone-style sting or an opening for a sequel. It could also be neither of those things. Regardless, there's no head-scratching when the movie's over--unless you want there to be.
Of course, the movie is not without its problems. As a filmmaker, Udler continues to grow significantly from project to project, and I would love to see his material mature at the same pace. There is some hard-hitting stuff in this movie, but at almost every turn it is at risk of being undercut by cute elements that are completely unnecessary to the story. The homeless man knocking on Mary Ann's car in the beginning is a fine example of a slice of comic relief that contributed nothing to our understanding of our heroine as a character.
There's also Renken's portrayal of the crazy religious mom. She and Katzenberger paint veeery broad characters that would have benefited from some of the nuance that Udler and Duerksen imbue in the story's main players. Renken in particular makes Piper Laurie's role in Carrie seem like the picture of understatement; there's a quality of grand projection that would feel more at home on the theatre stage than in a film grounded in what could be described as modified realism. I get that the writers were trying to play up the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of the overly devout, but one doesn't have to go to such extremes to do that.
Speaking of exaggeration, this is the second film in a row in which Matt Ukena helps make the early scenes hard to watch. He plays Wyatt, Mary Ann's latest hook-up, and he's a vulgar local, an angry loser with nothing better to do than bang twenty-dollar whores in a closet. It's a fine idea for a character, but I have no idea why he's in this film. He's a cartoon who disappears after the first fifteen minutes.
This offense is especially egregious because it takes away from screen time that could have been occupied by the superb Tom Lodewyck. The star of both Incest Death Squad films, he shows up here as a priest who suspects Mary Ann's involvement with William and Carrie is dangerous. The three-minute conversation between Lodewyck and Duerksen may be the strongest thing Udler has filmed, and is a reminder of how great the non-incestuous relationship material in the IDS films is.
But in keeping with the two-steps-forward issue, the priest character travels along an arc that undercuts everything cool that was established about him. As Mary Ann begins preaching and healing again, she attracts members away from Father Foster's church. He is defrocked and ruined socially in a scene that takes place several weeks or months after the one immediately preceding it. It's a jarring, "Wait...what?" moment--one that I half-accepted until Foster began swearing and plotting his drunken revenge.
I understand bitterness, but I also understand--to some degree--priests. And I know few men of the cloth who would so freely toss around the word "cunt". If there is a follow-up to Mediatrix, I would love for Udler and Duerksen to create a parallelquel, in which we see Foster's fall from grace. That would realy be something. As it stands, he hatches a plot to foil Mary Ann that, again, would have been just as effective if he had simply remained a noble but broken man who tries to do the right thing.
If you become invested in Mediatrix as a complete experience, these gripes shouldn't derail your enjoyment--much. Udler's movies are always interesting to look at and beautifully shot. He turns the woods of Wisconsin into an artsy battleground on which mankind wrestles with internal and external nature. And his strict use of songs as score is even more accomplished in Mediatrix than it was in IDS2. Scratchy, old bluegrass shares the same soundtrack as metal, and both underscore the film's themes of duality in ways you would absolutely not expect by looking at the box cover.
Mediatrix is a perfect movie screaming to be set free from its imperfections. For his next project, I would kill to see Udler (and, hopefully, Duerksen) leave the silliness behind and focus on the very real dramatic skills in his quiver. I'm not saying that Incest Death Squad 3 has to be The Remains of the Day, but what's the harm in making a film that might attract a more sophisticated audience? Udler has a big enough imagination and a talented enough crew that I'll bet he could make a bold, compelling adult drama about serial killers, Jesus, or the economic crisis--without sacrificing his penchant for gratuitous nudity and violence.**
Conflict of Interest Alert! I'd like to note that Kicking the Seat received a special thanks in the end credits of Mediatrix. This was a cool surprise, especially since I genuinely like the film. Bullet=dodged.
*Poster image is NSFW.
**I must give him and Duerksen props for granting us so many great views of Mary Ann; I say this not to be base, but to express my gratitude at their showing audiences what a real, sexy woman looks like--even when she's acting repulsively.