Every scene in Sean Durkin’s short film "Mary Last Seen" is eerily confining, beginning with the first shot. On a highway, surrounded by opaque forests and an imposing overcast sky, the main characters reveal themselves through a few lines of opening dialogue. Her boyfriend silences Mary’s childlike singing, a foreboding and foreshadowing rendition of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumber.” Immediately revealed as a controlling force, he uses affectionate language to obscure the rather intimidating nature of his speech: “Babe, that is very pretty but it’s a bit early for singing.” Her boyfriend’s exertion of control parallels the imprisoning effect of the cinematographer’s (Drew Innis) framing, both of which characterize Mary’s imminent fate.
The shots and dialogue continue to impose throughout the film on the passive and generally unresponsive Mary. Neither her body nor her voice is her own; she is told to take her clothes off, to speak, to walk. The camera often seems to rush her along; later in the film, when the couple walks through a field, most of the space is filled with the boyfriend and the landscape ahead. She follows too slowly to remain entirely in-frame. In an early sex scene, the boyfriend holds Mary against a truck-stop bathroom wall, and Durkin doesn’t allow us to see Mary’s face. Eclipsed by her hair, her boyfriend, and her environment, Mary becomes an object upon which these other dynamic forces act.
More than a mumblecore character study, though, Durkin’s adept atmospheric plot development creates a setting of which the audience immediately feels suspicious. Like Aaron Katz’s recent Cold Weather, in which mumblecore characters are set against a genre backdrop, "Mary Last Seen" adapts the traditions of slasher films. Isolated in the woods, without resources or direction, Mary’s circumstances reminded me of Sally’s in Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Marion’s in Psycho. The critical difference is that Sally is a proactive heroine, resourceful and curious: qualities that ultimately save her. Mary echoes Marion more closely, though with significantly less context and development than Hitchcock’s thieving protagonist; both characters are portrayed as vulnerable—Marion in the shower, Mary in her personality—and with limited awareness. Watching Mary’s boyfriend throw her phone across the highway while she’s in the bathroom was strange yet sinister, like Norman Bates spying on Marion in her hotel room.
I found Durkin’s short film to be an excellent exploration and reworking of style, genre, and content conventions. His extensive research into cult practices and histories, combined with his personal perspective, definitely enhance the film tremendously. In a Filmmaker Magazine profile, he described a childhood “fear of home invasion,” and the final scenes of "Mary Last Seen" certainly explore the perversion of the home. Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin’s feature film, the script for which Mary Last Seen was developed to accompany, was accepted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for Un Certain Regarde. Durkin is an exciting new presence, particularly through his careful character development and genre adaptation, and I’m looking forward to see where he moves from here.
Mary Last Seen, A-
Check out the trailer!