Before I speak about Angela Bettis’ performance and the May character itself, the movie MAY directed by Lucky McKee is, simply put, fantastic. If you somehow haven’t seen it, this article will contain a lot of spoilers, so go find it, watch it, love it and then come back and keep reading. For me, its McKee’s best movie (and he’s had several good ones), it’s brilliantly written, dark and horrifically gory, while containing one of my favourite ever genre performances from Angela Bettis.
The actress wasn’t a complete novice when it comes to horror before she starred in MAY. In 2000 she was featured in Bless The Child and in 2002 – the same year MAY was released – she played Carrie in a TV movie adaptation of the Stephen King story. Since then she has become a bit of a cult favourite among horror fans despite only really being featured in a handful of projects. But 2002 was her year and along with Carrie, she put in two amazing performances.
In MAY, we get a sense of the character immediately. She comes across as very shy and quiet. A quietness that quickly becomes a little bit creepy. This creepiness isn’t completely subtle, you are definitely supposed to be aware of it but it’s also not ‘in your face’. Bettis portrays it extremely well, and she doesn’t even need to speak very much to do it, there’s so much she does with her facial expressions and in particular her eyes. Her eyes are constantly talking and tell you exactly how May feels.
There’s one scene with a retractable knife where May’s love interest pretends to stab her before she knows it is retractable. But to his surprise she doesn’t just find it funny, May really loves it. She then proceeds to pull the knife towards her heart while making direct eye contact with the guy. All without saying a word. He kind of realises but at the same time kind of likes it. And this is a key part of May’s character.
Bettis (and McKee must take some credit for the writing and directing) somehow makes this serial killer likeable. That’s right, you’ll actually be rooting for May, and the first three-quarters of the movie is spent with you gathering sympathy and support for her. That shyness also comes out in the form of being very awkward in pretty much any social situation. She doesn’t really understand the world the same way most people do and she’s constantly lead by the people around her. I felt sorry for May on several occasions but I could also relate to her much more than I should probably admit to. I felt like the world was against her and she was driven to do the horrific things she does. I also feel like her heart is in the right place and she is actually a nice person – when she volunteers at the school for blind children this is all but confirmed. But if you’re unsure at all whether you find May likeable, everything will change at about the hour mark. When going to visit her potential boyfriend, she stops at the front door as she hears him and his friend talking about her. We then watch this heartbreaking moment when May hears that he doesn’t want to be with her, and she stands there desperately trying not to be seen or heard while wanting to burst into tears and scream. Bettis plays it to perfection.
But what makes May scary, and trust me, she does become scary, is a lot of the same things that make her likeable. Which again, may seem strange and totally wouldn’t work if a weaker actress was in place. Her softly spoken voice can be both cute and creepy, her unusual look and the fact that she makes her own clothes will make some people love her but others think she is a bit odd. It’s that fine line. One of my favourite things Bettis does with the character is the awkward look down at her feet and then looking up to face whom she is talking to and then down again and this continues. It’s a clear sign of someone with no confidence but is desperately wanting to engage and is trying her hardest.
There is a point when May changes. There is an accident at the school she is volunteering at and she is called a freak. These two incidents though are just a culmination of many things and she snaps. Suddenly May is a different person. A psychopath who is confident, determined and motivated. It even comes with a bit of a makeover and Bettis relishes playing what is basically a whole new role. But she shows enough of the old May to not make things too drastic. All of the death scenes, including the ones after this, are quick but surprisingly brutal. They all feel very harsh, and May’s emotionless stone cold look, that she has for much of the movie, becomes even more terrifying when it involves killing someone.
Then comes a moment in the final scene where May changes back to her old self and everything seems even stranger. Bettis even pulls off one of the most harrowing screams heard in any movie ever.