By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer and Stefanie Scott
Directed by Michael Goi
Written by Anthony Jaswinski
If having a baby is—as the late, great Nora Ephron once contended—like “throwing a hand grenade into a marriage,” imagine how intense tossing two kids, adultery, a decrepit boat hundreds of miles from shore and the malevolent, soul-hungry spirit of a witch into the mix would be. That’s the emotional and existential detonators the seafaring supernatural thriller MARY triggers, employing smoldering, nimble performances from Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer (who discusses the movie here) as fuel, sending out blast waves of dread and terror, leaving viewers wondering exactly how far the fallout will spread.
From the jump, we know things have gone sideways: MARY opens with a shaken Sarah (Mortimer) detained in a police station, begging to see her children while being subjected to a bad-cop interrogation by a detective (Jennifer Esposito) who is understandably skeptical of the perhaps self-made widow’s otherworldly excuse for the dead bodies left in her wake. At one point, the detective interrupts Sarah to ask why she and her family didn’t simply abandon ship. “I guess you’re not a sailor,” Sarah replies. “The thing about boats is, there’s nowhere to run.”
Such is our inside knowledge when the film flashes back to David (Oldman) coming across the not-so-good ship Mary at auction. The siren-esque wooden figurehead seems to beckon him—foreshadowing!—and he purchases the boat without warning his wife that he’s about to sink their life savings into a whim. Sarah protests at first, but is forced to stifle her doubts—turns out she’s been unfaithful, a supposedly forgiven sin that is nonetheless being used against her as a sort of passive-aggressive emotional blackmail. Never mind the financial risk, never mind that the previous crew disappeared without a trace, never mind the warnings of his current employers—the endeavor of restoring the ship for eventual chartering by tourists, David suggests, will save their marriage.
Alas, there is an unseen presence that has very different plans for the family, and soon after the Mary pushes off, it becomes apparent this will be no pleasure cruise: The couple’s young daughter, coincidentally also named Mary (Chloe Perrin of ITSY BITSY), is drawing creepy pictures and palling around with an invisible, seemingly hostile friend. Things start going bump in the night…and day. Sarah keeps getting locked below decks and faces attacks from monsters that seem a little too real to be hallucinations. The deckhand (Owen Teague)—who also happens to be the boyfriend of their teenage daughter Lindsey (INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3’s Stefanie Scott)—takes a gruesome approach to his own tattoo removal and the first mate appears to be in the throes of full-blown possession. (What a joy it is, incidentally, to see the great stuntperson/actress Natalie Jean of THE CEMETERY and GHOST SOURCE ZERO in full terror/haunting mode again.)
Genre devotees can no doubt see where this is going. Yet while the beats of the script by Anthony Jaswinski (THE SHALLOWS) hardly come out of left field, the tragic family dynamic is powerfully rendered by all four leads with pathos and nuance. Unlike so many horror films where you find yourself fairly screaming at the screen, “What possible reason could you have for doing that monumentally stupid thing?!”, MARY draws real empathy out of us. We know why Sarah gets on that boat, despite every bit of her good sense demanding she not. We understand why David, for so long, will not alter course or try to get off that ship despite the horrors going on all around him. The film, helmed with both immediacy and subtlety by Michael Goi (AMERICAN HORROR STORY), captures perhaps the purest, most harrowing truth about human beings: We are driven not by logic and common sense, but rather by flawed emotional instinct and fear.
“You’re out on the ocean on 80 feet of wood and steel,” Sarah tells her interrogator of the natural element that is every bit as terrifying as any ghost, and serves—like the snowbound tundra in another Mortimer film, 2008’s TRANSSIBERIAN—as a character unto itself. “And you look true horror in the face. And she stares right back at you… She was never going to let us go.”
Maybe, maybe not. But once you decide to believe it for your own internal reason, it actualizes all manner of horrors and sorrows. And this is the arena in which MARY excels.