Mary (2019)

Mary first published by SciFiNow

Michael Goi’s Mary begins after the event, and bids us reconstruct what has happened. It opens with an aerial wide shot of a stricken vessel billowing smoke and flames in the open sea, and a flare being fired from a smaller vessel. Most of what remains of the film is an investigation, as Special Agent Lydia Clarkson (Jennifer Esposito) interviews Sarah Greer (Emily Mortimer) about what went down on/with the ship in the ocean off Florida. Sarah just wants to be reunited with her two daughters, teenaged Lindsay (Stefanie Scott) and the much younger Mary (Chloe Perrin), who are both being held elsewhere – but meanwhile, there is the small matter of resolving what happened out there to Sarah’s missing husband David (Garry Oldman) on their old but newly purchased boat the Mary. Sarah is not helping her cause when she insists that “Evil needs a body to exist – the body was that boat.” Lydia thinks that Sarah has lost her mind. Then again, the film is prefaced with an authoritative textual quote about the Puritans’ practice of drowning witches at sea, and a prologue in which coast guards, years earlier, discover the same vessel abandoned by its crew…

So it is that, from the start, Mary is rooted in the dialectic of ambiguity. Lydia’s cross-examination of Sarah, from which there will emerge an account of how the Greers came to own the Mary and what happened on board over its last days, is also a clash between Lydia’s rationalism and Sarah’s irrationalism, each vying for control over the body of the narrative. The very fact that both a character and the boat itself are named ‘Mary’ (a coincidence upon which Sarah and David expressly remark) points to the film’s central equivocation – is an old sailboat, or a human being, the vehicle of this family’s tragedy – and the question remains to the very end whether we are sailing the straightforwardly haunted waters of Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship (2002) or the more psychological seas of Chris Smith’s Triangle (2009). Certainly the film plays it both ways, giving us Sarah’s frazzled story of nautical curses and a Siren-like demoness, while presenting evidence of a family already lost at sea long before it ever boards the Mary. In refurbishing this ramshackle sailboat, some of whose parts date back centuries, experienced mariner David is also trying to rebuild a family shattered by Sarah’s recent affair with a friend, and to secure for himself, after decades of exploitative employment, a destiny in which he will once more be at the helm. Yet in all his commanding patriarchy, David is precisely the kind of domineering male figure who brings out the witch in any recalcitrant woman.

Mary keeps telling us that it is not quite what we think it is. First of all, there is that name, evoking – without exactly being the same as – the Mary Celeste and its enigmatic history. Then there is its location, which we are expressly told is the Bermuda Circle, a name that does not quite square with other maritime mysteries in the vicinity (although we do hear one reference to the region by its other name, the Devil’s Triangle). All this might lead the viewer to expect something out of the ordinary, but in fact Mary, though mostly seaborne, is an utterly pedestrian chiller that never strays very far off course from its initially stated premise. No genre-savvy viewer is likely to be surprised by the de rigueur gratuitous jumpshocks every few minutes, by the creepy noises off, creepier apparitions (shown far too early) and the impossibly un/locking doors familiar from countless haunted house movies, or even by the (too) well telegraphed final-act twist.

There will always be something evocative, metaphorical even, in the imagery of a ship adrift in open waters or storm-tossed by driving winds and rains – and Mary is a very good-looking film, showing its vessel from all angles while making the most of those claustrophobic, cabin-fever-inducing interiors (Goi also served as cinematographer here). Yet there is something meh about Mary. All the materials from which it has been constructed are solid enough to make it seaworthy, but are also leaky and creaky through the weathered wear and tear of their overuse. It just about stays afloat till the end, but you may feel that you want to jump ship to a newer, more original vessel for cruising through the choppy waters of family dysfunction.

strap: There’s something meh about Mary, Michael Goi’s floating (then sinking) haunted boat movie. 

© Anton Bitel