Caution: this review contains major spoilers throughout. If you have not yet seen the film, I advise you to skip down to the technical section.
Waif-like May (Angela Bettis) is an outcast: awkward, shy and lacking most of the social graces the rest of us take for granted, she lives in a decaying mansion with only a disturbing-looking doll for company. By day, she works as a veterinarian's assistant, oblivious to the advances of the saucy receptionist, Polly (Anna Faris). May has set her sights on Adam (Jeremy Sisto), a mechanic and amateur filmmaker, and he initially returns her affections, only to back off after getting a taste of just how weird she can be (he likes weird, but "not this weird"). May, unable to take rejection, spins into a downward spiral and, as she retreats ever further into herself, she remembers her mother's old adage: "If you can't find a friend, make one."
Horror movies, especially those that venture into slasher territory (which this arguably does, although not until its final act), are not best known for the quality of their characterisations, and yet somehow Lucky McKee, here directing his first solo feature, manages to turn this convention on its head and make the three-dimensional portrayal of its titular character the film's greatest strength. With about as much meat on her bones as a skeleton, a lazy eye and, not least, the ability to transform into a cold-blooded mass murderer, May, by all common forms of logic, shouldn't be attractive. Despite this, I've noticed many people confessing to be infatuated with her after seeing this movie - and I can see the appeal. Clearly inspired heavily by Carrie (in fact, Angela Bettis played the role of Carrie White in a made-for-TV remake of that film), May is appealing because she is so wretched, so utterly detached from "normality" (whatever that is) that your heart goes out to her. It's primarily Angela Bettis' acting that sells her, however, since as well-written as May is at script level, in the hands of a lesser performer the character could have been rendered as a farce. Bettis' performance is pitch-perfect, with her eye-shifts, off-kilter line delivery, nervous smiles and fumbling hand gestures. She is utterly believable and imbues her character with so many unusual quirks that she is never less than completely endearing, even after multiple individuals have died at her hand.
Anna Faris, meanwhile, plays Polly with an infectious level of enthusiasm, frequently skirting the border between a believable performance and one that is completely over the top, but always managing to come down on the right side. Polly is an interesting character, and of all the deaths that result from May being tipped over the edge, hers is the most regrettable. It may not be immediately apparent, but she is the most sympathetic individual in May's life, and one who wants to make her happy above all else (watch the scene in which May is distraught to discover her entertaining another woman - "I can kick her out if you want me to"). Her indulgence in open relationships may not fit within traditional notions of intimacy, but she is someone who is willing to accept May as she is, regardless of her faults.
As Adam, however, Jeremy Sisto is not particularly engaging or charismatic, making it difficult to understand how May could come to be so infatuated by him. To some extent, this actually works better than you would imagine, since once May 'goes too far', Adam proves to be a thoroughly careless individual, immediately trying to distance himself from her without explaining to her what he did wrong. He comes across as irresponsible, involving himself with an emotionally insecure girl while it suits him to do so, only to sever the connection the second she creeps him out. The notion that he likes weirdness to a certain extent, but not weirdness to the extent that May exhibits, actually mirrors audience reactions to the film quite nicely. Adam's idea of weird is watching Dario Argento films and shooting an amateur movie about two young lovers eating each other - he, like many filmgoers, likes his scares to be packaged in a predictable, "safe" format. When he comes face to face with true weirdness, he understandably recoils. In this way, I feel that May has a level of human truth to it that is rare in horror cinema. As such, the horror of the film does not come from its (sporadic) gore, but rather from the realisation that, yes, May really is that fucked up, and sadly it is largely the actions (or lack thereof) of others that have made her this way.
I've heard many people say that they didn't enjoy watching May because it made them feel uneasy: they didn't know whether to laugh, cry or recoil in horror. To me, this is one of its greatest strengths. It successfully evokes a wide gamut of different moods, many of which, like Anna Faris' character, stand right in the middle of the divide between sincerity and farce. The finest example of this is perhaps the scene in which May tells Adam a gruesome story involving a botched operation on a dog. The scene takes place in the tranquility of a park with children playing in the background, with both the location and May's dead-calm delivery brilliantly countering the stomach-churning tale she tells of the dog's innards being splayed throughout the garden. Capping it all off is the delighted smile on her face as she reveals the punchline and takes a large bite out of a sandwich. All of this is accomplished with remarkable skill by McKee, whose relative inexperience and the miniscule budget of $500,000 (the bulk of which, I'm sure, must have gone into securing the cast) make the end result all the more surprising. His only previous film work was a straight-to-video slasher called All Cheerleaders Die (a co-direct with May's editor, Chris Sivertson), and so the expertise he shows in terms of cinematography and pacing is remarkable. McKee is clearly a big fan of Argento, and he flaunts this influence on a number of occasions, mostly through the character of Adam (who, for example, in one scene is seen reading a copy of Maitland McDonagh's Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds). Still, Argento's impact on the film is subtle enough for these occasional moments of flaunting not to descend into masturbatory hero-worship.
If I were to find any fault in the film it would be in its less than subtle symbolism. May's doll, Suzie, remains locked inside a glass case throughout, and the gradual cracking of the glass is used to represent to slow breakdown of May's sanity. It's a neat piece of symbolism, admittedly, but one that is too heavy-handed. Some have also expressed concern about the fact that May's personality completely alters during the final act of the film, when she goes on her killing spree. I'm tempted to agree: while the seeds of her insanity have been sown throughout the film, the fact that her bloodlust is accompanied by an almost total change of personality, transforming the nervous, wide-eyed recluse into an ice-cold femme fatale, makes the transition a little too jarring. It does redeem itself in the last few minutes, though, and the final frames are heartbreaking.
May is one of the finest examples of independent American genre filmmaking in recent years. Too character-oriented to fit comfortably into the horror genre, and too gory to be labeled a straightforward character study, May is, much like its title character, a quirky but strangely appealing mixture of emotions that gets under your skin and stays with you long after the final credits have rolled.
May is presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This is, for the most part, an excellent transfer, showcasing a decent amount of detail with little in the way of edge enhancement. Furthermore, the colours, while understandably fairly muted given the tone that the film adopts, look very good indeed to me. The look of the transfer is suitably film-like for the most part, although a handful of brief moments, usually only the odd insert here and there, have for some reason been encoded interlaced. There are also a few mild compression artefacts, but overall nothing severe.
The only audio mix included is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which is a decent if not earth-shattering affair. The rear speakers are used mainly for the music and not much else, but given that the film is a character piece rather than an action movie, this is completely appropriate. Of some occasions, I felt that the dialogue had been mixed a bit too low, creating an overly large discrepancy between the louder and quieter moments, but all in all this is a good track. Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish; unfortunately, they are of the overly large, yellow variety and thus tend to be a bit distracting. None of the extras are subtitled.
Extras are limited to two commentaries and some trailers.
The first track features Lucky McKee, director of photography Steve Yedlin, editor Chris Sivertson and actors Angela Bettis, Bret Roberts and Nichole Hiltz. While slow to start off, the commentary is actually quite interesting, and even adds a touch of humour in places, including a moment when one of the commentators for no reason produces a mouth organ and belts out a happy tune. Sadly, Angela Bettis does not impart too much information, which would have been interesting to say the least. Conversely, Nichole Hiltz (Ambrosia) arrives late and won't shut up.
The second commentary focuses on the production side and once again offers up McKee, joined this time by composer Jaye Barnes-Luckett, production designer Leslie Keel, editor Rian Johnson, and Benji the craft services guy. This is a much more technical commentary than the first, imparting a lot of information about the production process. It also makes mention of deleted scenes and abandoned concepts, which are sadly not included on this DVD. Some comic relief comes in the form of Benji, an extremely camp fellow who imparts some useful information about culinary etiquette and fashion. Some material is repeated from the first commentary, and because the second one is the meatier of the two, I would recommend listening to it first.
The film's theatrical trailer can be found by selecting the Lions Gate logo on the main menu. Bonus trailers for Confidence and The Dead Zone are also accessed this way.
If you haven't already seen May, I urge you to check it out immediately. Lions Gate have delivered a solid audio-visual presentation for this unusual and highly enjoyable horror film. While the extras could have done with an increase in quantity, what is on offer is of a decent standard and should prove to be of interest for fans of the film.