Film, 1999, 3.5 stars
Written and Directed: Damian Harris
Warning: This film contains images that some people may find disturbing.
I usually shy away from gory films (see my review of Wild Side for evidence of that) but occasionally I can't help myself. If the actresses in question are particular favourites, it's hard to stay away.
Rated R for "language, drug use and perverse sexual behavior including violence and nudity", this film does tend to push the limits of good taste somewhat. However, there's no more gore than your average episode of C.S.I or any straight cop drama. Mercy had to be re-cut and re-submitted four times to even achieve its R rating. Despite the graphic bloodletting and sexual perversity depicted in the film, it was the simple allusion to lesbian oral sex that the censors baulked at. It's a classic example of the double standards that pervade the film classification process.
In Mercy, the luminous Ellen Barkin plays Detective Catherine Palmer, an experienced but lonely cop on the trail of a serial killer who indulges in what appears to be consensual S&M sex and then stabs his victims and severs their eyelids. The trail of people who knew the first two victims leads her to Vickie Kittrie (Peta Wilson), a successful lesbian businesswoman. While obviously distressed at the death of her friends (and sexual partners), Vickie is at first reluctant to cooperate. After a while, Vickie sets her sights at Catherine as her latest conquest, and the investigation becomes just another dangerous sexual game for her.
Vickie introduces Catherine to an underground world of rich women who like to get together without men for drugs, orgies, S&M, whatever takes their fancy. Someone is killing off these powerful women one at a time. The only way Catherine can understand and flush out the killer is to immerse herself into Vickie's world, to try and understand it. We are led to wonder, is the killer actually a woman, or are these women simply a feeding pool for a sick mind? Is Vickie herself the killer, or a potential victim?
From entrance to exit Peta Wilson just oozes sex. As with all good Femme Fatales, Vickie Kittrie is unknowable, undefinable, seductive and obviously damaged. This makes her a good match for Catherine who understands damage all too well. Vickie is a woman who has endured so much physical pain she has come to enjoy it, indeed she can no longer experience pleasure without having pain and danger attached.
There are boundaries that shouldn't be crossed, too many reasons why these women shouldn't form any real feeling for each other. The attraction grows, deepens, intensifies, and is never truly sated. Like all good thrillers, not until the final reel do we unravel the plot twists. It isn't the ending that we want, but it is the ending that was inevitable, the one that makes perfect sense.
Truthfully, this film and its subject matter does the collective lesbian image no favours. Desperate, cruel, sad, even psychotic - those are all qualities synonymous with the lesbian stereotypes of films past. Despite that, Mercy is interesting because it explores the pathology of certain sexual preferences in such an open way and dares to discuss some of the reasons behind self-destructive behaviour.
The film does, to the naive observer, seem to be thoroughly well researched. While I do think it is dangerous to assume all people who enjoy S&M sex have some background of abuse, it is probably safe to say that many do, and that films like this are at least partial reflections of their experiences. The S&M scenes are designed neither to disgust nor to titillate. Since we see most of them through the eyes of Catherine and her investigation, they actually seem an attempt to inform our viewpoint and to broaden our minds. Mercy might play like a B-movie thriller but that mood seems more intentional than not.
Mercy is a true guilty pleasure, if ever I saw one, especially for people who do like a good murder mystery. Also, the seduction scene between Catherine and Vickie is as hot as they come. Trash cinema with a soul? Fans of La Femme Nikita will be entranced. The darkness of the human soul is not a pretty place to live, but sometimes it can be fascinating to visit for a while.