Dirs. Jen and Sylvia Soska
Following on from their low-budget but exuberant debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk, the Soska sisters’ sophomore offering is a darkly, wholly unsettling tale of an impoverished medical student who finds herself lured into the bizarre underground world of illegal surgery and extreme body modification. Unfurling as an intriguing character study, American Mary is a much more refined and mature film than Dead Hooker, though it still retains the jet-black humour and off-the-wall tone the filmmakers are quickly becoming known for. Part body horror, part rape-revenge, part black-comedy, the various sub-genres the filmmakers utilise and dabble in to tell their tale are swirled into one highly distinctive and provocative whole.
From the opening moments depicting Mary (Katherine Isabelle, Ginger Snaps) practising her surgical skills on raw chicken flesh, to the various characters who later enlist her talents to alter their physical appearance, the emphasis in American Mary is on flesh: the fallibility and fabulousness of flesh. The line is increasingly blurred between the extremes people go to by modifying their flesh to express themselves, and the violent damage inflicted upon the flesh by others. We follow Mary as she descends into this underworld, becoming increasingly disaffected and desensitised by the sometimes alarming situations she finds herself in. Interestingly, it’s actually the ‘establishment’ that succeeds in corrupting Mary and instigating her tragic trajectory. Accepting an invitation to a swanky party with the surgeons she studies under, Mary is drugged and raped in a harrowing scene that refuses respite. This is what unhinges her, pushing her to the point of no return and providing the catalyst for her transformation. When she drops out of school she doesn’t stop wielding a scalpel; first and foremost she extracts brutal vengeance upon the human monsters who defiled her, ensuring their inward corruption is outwardly visable…
Mary is complexly drawn and constantly evolving as a character. From her initial naivety and quiet determination to succeed at medical school, to her emergence as a vengeful femme fatale, she refuses to allow herself to be relegated to the status of victim, despite the horrendous things that occur to her and eventually push her into grisly action. Katherine Isabelle, staunchly proving her capability and showcasing herself as one of the most underrated actresses around, portrays Mary as a strong and thoughtful young woman who not only makes difficult decisions, but lives with the consequences and struggles to reconcile her ever-shifting morality. She never plays Mary as a psychopath, despite the sometimes horrendous acts she carries out.
This non-judgemental approach extends to the underground world of body modification in which Mary finds herself wallowing. Beautifully realised and, far from the exploitative, murky place it could have been, it’s populated mainly by idiosyncratic and deeply sympathetic misfits with complex inner lives. Chief amongst these individuals is Beatress (Tristan Risk), a young woman who has had her face surgically enhanced to resemble her idol Betty Boop, and her friend Ruby Realgirl, who has extreme surgery to realise her dream of becoming a living Barbie doll. Despite all the grotesque freakery on display with such characters stretching their skin beyond recognition and going to lengths to drastically change their outward appearance, they are never exploited or made fun of; they’re fleshed out, sympathetic and imbued with pathos.
While the story weavers a little after the half-way mark, it isn’t long before the slow-burning tension finally ignites as we head to a devastating denouement. In terms of narrative cohesion and linear storytelling, the Soskas have really honed their craft since Dead Hooker; though that film’s haphazard pacing and meandering narrative actually worked to enhance its anarchic tone. American Mary is much more refined, and boasts artful storytelling. As a result the emotional impact is unavoidable. The look of the film is also beautifully realised, from Mary’s softly lit apartment, to the dark and seedy nightclubs she begins to frequent as she garners a reputation for herself and earns the moniker ‘Bloody Mary’; it’s a tangible world that feels real, and, strangely enough, at times inviting. Despite all the horror, gore and twisted scenarios, the strongest element of American Mary is its overwhelming sense of tragedy, and while there are several unflinchingly uncomfortable moments - including the brutal rape scene - it never feels overly gratuitous.
Funny, sexy, horrifying and tragic, this is a dark carnival of a film, brimming with edgy humour, daring pathos and quiet power.