May Dove Canady (Angela Bettis) lives in a box. Separated from the world around her, her gaze fixates through sheets glass on that which she cannot have. Glasses correct a lazy eye that in childhood was covered by an indiscreet eye-patch and that marked her eternally as an outcast and outsider. Now, as an adult, contact lenses replace the glasses and the patch, but they cannot replace the divide in her very soul, embedded and fixed there by years of loneliness. May exists in an eternal feedback loop, her status as an outsider so codified into her very being that her every attempt to bridge the divide between her and others is doomed to failure and only reinforces the distance between them, a self-fulfilling prophecy. She has become an Ouroboros, eating the tail of her own despair.
May’s best and only friend, Suzie, also lives in a box. Whereas May’s box was figurative, Suzie’s is literal, for Suzie is a doll. May’s mother gifted Suzie, a gape-eyed, pale-faced horror, to her as a child. May’s natural inclination was to remove Suzie from her display box, for dolls are meant to be played with, but her mother forbade it. Suzie is “special,” pristine; her specialness defined by the walls that contain her. May’s mother is a minor figure in the film, but her presence looms large. Suzie is, like May, her mother’s creation. “If you can’t find a friend, make one,” she tells May, advice she will one day, fatally, take very much to heart.
May converses with Suzie as though she were real, for she has no one else to talk to. She craves true connection: “I need a real friend. Someone I can hold.” Suzie’s wide eyes appear all seeing but in reality see nothing and only reaffirm May’s disconnectedness. Her Otherness is fixed by the very eyes that observe her, her loneliness fixed by those that don’t. Through Suzie’s eyes she sees only herself and her own despair. May’s only connection to the world around her is her eyes, but it is her own eyes that have excluded her from it. The echo chamber that is her relationship with Suzie provides her only point of reference for human interaction, for May’s tragic flaw is that she herself does not see others as they are, but as mirrors reflecting her own Otherness back at her. She sees herself in the eyes of others, and nothing else.
May is guilty of treating others the same way others treat her, reducing them to parts. May’s mother chastises her for ripping the wrapping paper when unwrapping Suzie. “Now it’s ruined,” she says, and one gets the impression she means more than the paper; surfaces matter, appearances are everything. May has all her life been reduced to a surface and so fails to see others as anything but, fetishizing and reducing people to “pretty parts,” while seeing “no pretty wholes.”
Her view is askew, her eye lazy, in more ways than one. When she meets Adam (Jeremy Sisto) she fixates on his hands, perhaps less so because they are “beautiful” and more so for what they represent. To be seen is one thing, but to be touched, to be held, is to affirm a connection, to be validated. May stalks Adam to a café and there tries to impress him, awkwardly bending her body into would-be seductive poses, as one might a doll, but her efforts go unnoticed. He only notices her after he has dozed off and wakes to find her rubbing her cheek against his hand. May doesn’t understand boundaries.
Much of the horror in May comes from watching her try, and fail, to negotiate these boundaries. It is a cringing, squirmy kind of horror, all too real and the more horrific for its relatability. The tragedy is how close she comes to finding what she wants. Others show genuine interest in her, but she is so absolute in her weirdness, so concerned with how others see her, that she cannot see them outside of what they reveal to her about herself. May is weird, and she knows she’s weird, but not just how weird. Life in a box has warped her concept of boundaries, and she doesn’t just push against these boundaries, but shatters them. After multiple failed attempts at connection and given her frustration with being seen as a freak, volunteering at a day-care center for blind children seems a logical step. May takes Suzie along to show the children.
May seems surprised when the children can’t tell what it is, unable in her mind to separate the doll from the box that contains it. “It’s just a box,” says one, feeling the case. May seems offended. Suzie’s seclusion is what makes her special. The children want to play with Suzie, for dolls are meant to be played with, but May resists. They wrest it from her hands, and the box, the boundary, shatters. Suzie is in pieces. So is May. Her weirdness has transcended the gaze of others. It is innate. The incident leaves her with glass in her eye and, for a short period, seeing the world through a haze of pain and blood. Appropriate, given the grueling conclusion the film herein hurtles towards.
The squirming horror of May’s social ineptitude gives way to the more traditional horror of blood and bodies as May slides inexorably towards madness. In a fit of fear and fury, May kills a stranger who has befriended her. Staring down at his body she concludes, “I need more parts,” and, boy, does she get them. May is a gifted seamstress and an experienced surgical assistant, a deadly combination for a woman smarting from a lifetime of pain and loneliness and with nothing left to lose. May fashions herself a new outfit, lets out her hair and forgoes the glasses, in a perversion of the old “beautiful all along” trope, and sets to work.
That her new look resembles Suzie is no coincidence; May has subsumed Suzie’s identity into her own. She has become a living doll. Ironically, and tragically, May finds in this persona a confidence and assuredness she never before possessed. May can’t find a friend, but she can sure as hell make one. Where once she reduced those in her orbit to parts figuratively, now she sets about doing so literally, paying fatal visits to those she perceives to have wronged her, and uses her newfound charm to lure them into complacency before she strikes. Her collection of perfect parts complete, May fashions together from corpse and cloth a life-size doll, which she dubs Amy, an anagram of her own name. But something is missing. The fabric horror cannot, with its patchwork eyes, truly see her. “See me!” she screams at Amy in despair but, of course, Amy cannot. May’s solution is as squirm inducing as it is futile.
Connection is a simple and necessary requirement of the human condition. Dolls are, after all, meant to be played with. And yet one of the great tragedies of existence is that we all live in our own boxes and may never truly know the mind of another, or know that another has truly known ours. The spaces between us are vast and unbridgeable. We may never be seen, and the best we can hope for is to believe we have been, that the eye that regards us has not fixed us, but sees us as we are, in our entirety.
Yet no one can never really know, and there is true terror in the idea that any sense of validation one might feel may be as cold and imagined as the dead hand of a patchwork demon caressing one’s cheek. May’s desire to be seen is so fundamentally human and her violence all the more horrific because of the fragility that motivates it. Her monstrous creation regards her with eyes that are as dead and unseeing as Suzie’s. Desperate, May plunges shears into her eye-socket and gifts the unmoving terror her own eye, the feedback loop complete, seeing herself regarded with her own dead eye and knowing that it sees nothing, that she will never be seen.
This is the horror of May: that we might never truly be seen, or might be seen as less than we are, our place in the world fixed, the eye that fixes us itself as fixed and immovable as a doll’s eye. May gazes into the abyss, but the abyss does not gaze back. Even the void cannot see her.