Enveloped in Excess Flesh – A Review
After watching the insane promotional music video for Excess Flesh last fall, the film immediately jumped to the top of my “must watch” list. Blood, sex, psychosis, and all the other things that make a genre film exciting were there, all infused with a song.
This debut feature film, directed by Patrick Kennelly–co-written by Kennelly and Sigrid Gilmer–centers on Jill (Bethany Orr), a young woman who has struggled to find her footing in Los Angeles. She’s become a shut-in, much to the frustration of her beautiful and outgoing roommate Jennifer (Mary Loveless). Jennifer is highly critical of Jill and her inertia, and often targets her with abusive comments. Jennifer rationalizes her cruelty as being direct and no nonsense, but it chips away at Jill until she snaps one day and chains Jennifer to a wall. While Jill descends into madness, Jennifer’s chances of surviving the ordeal grows increasingly unlikely.
It wasn’t at all what I imagined from either the music video or the trailer, but, surprisingly, it exceeded my expectations. The music video and trailer are not misleading, but successfully managed to only scratch the surface of the film, much like my synopsis above. When the setup involves a chained woman in her underwear, it’s certainly reasonable for viewers to assume they’re in for something trashy. Instead we’re treated to a slyly sophisticated film that owes much more to the claustrophobic madness of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion than any films in the women-in-chains exploitation genre.
At the start of the film, Jill has already locked herself away, and not just physically within her apartment. She resists starting a life for herself, lacking a job and hesitant to start anything with Rob (Wes McGee) for whom she has feelings. She struggles with her appearance and relationship with food. Jennifer can seemingly eat whatever she wants without worry or any noticeable weight gain. Jill guiltily binges on Pop Tarts and agonizes over her scale. Jill’s troubles run deeper than just her appearance, which becomes apart as we witness her interactions with others–Jennifer, Rob, her neighbor, and her equally troubled mother, with whom Jill has Skype conversations.
Excess Flesh is a film of textures, from the crumbling Pop Tarts to the crunch of Doritos, and the softness of skin to the cold heft of metal chains. The texture of noodles both when it touches Jill’s lips and when she later regurgitates it are both so familiar, ingrained in our collective memories. This tactile connection to the world on the screen forges an indelible connection that enhances the viewing experience.
Early into the film, Kennelly dangles a carrot for viewers with a brief conversation about the film Last Year at Marienbad. Perhaps it’s too heavy-handed of a reference, but it immediately alerts viewers to not trust everything we’re seeing. We’re being to drawn into Jill’s world. She’s imprisoning us as well and we’ll soon only be able to see what she wants us to see. Whether or not it’s really happening is unknown. That uncertainty is thrilling. Jill tortures Jennifer with food, oscillating from force-feeding to threats of starvation. In one scene, we watch Jill prepare a beautiful meal. We later see rotted food strewn throughout the apartment. It’s food porn turned to snuff. All the while, an exquisite sound design and soundtrack further exudes the discomfort of the visuals.
Bethany Orr is terrific as Jill. A film like this one lives and dies based on the performance of its lead and Orr does not disappoint. She may be perpetrating horrific acts upon Jennifer, but she still is garner a deranged sympathy. I haven’t felt this way toward a damaged and deranged lead since Brandon Maggart‘s performance in Christmas Evil (which is genuinely nearly as high of a compliment as the comparison to Repulsion). Jill scares me, but I’m still routing for her to free herself of the trap in which she’s placed herself and Jennifer.
Perhaps the only time the film started to lose me was a masturbation fantasy scene that devolved into a nightmarish cooking show-style sex competition. It goes on just a little too long and once it introduces rape imagery, for the first time the film slips into unearned gratuitousness. The scene serves a purpose and an important piece of a puzzle viewers may or may not realize they’re putting together, but I can’t help feeling it could have been tightened.
Excess Flesh is a film that begs to be watched more than once, another layer to the spider-web like trap it ensnares everyone in. The future viewings won’t necessarily be to better understand the film, but to admire the intricacies of its construction. Delve in for the first time when it becomes available on VOD starting March 8th.