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RUNNING TIME 95 Minutes
• A Revealing Look at the Making of American Mary
• Commentary by Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk
It’s Breaking Bad for the body modification crowd.
Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, Pauline Lindberg
Disillusioned with medical school and perpetually broke, med student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) finds herself drawn into the shady world of underground surgery and body modification. Directed by “Twisted Twins” Jen and Sylvia Soska, this stylish, subversive tour-de-force has been hailed by critics as “one of the most fascinating female-themed horror stories in years.”
There’s a certain type of movie that isn’t really horror but always gets marketed as such because no other viewing audience is likely to accept or tolerate it. These movies aren’t scary in the traditional sense but they look at a darker side of culture that non-horror fans usually find abhorrent and too dark to explore. American Mary is just this sort of film.
Mary is a medical student studying to become a surgeon; she’s gifted and smart but school has left her dirt poor. One night whilst doing a job interview at a strip club, the owner Billy (Antonio Cupo) offers her $5000 for some life saving surgery if she doesn’t ask any questions. As she needs money and is desperate she agrees, going home traumatized and terrified out of her mind.
The next day, Beatress (Tristan Risk) turns up at her door. Beatress has had an absurd amount of plastic surgery and now looks like a cartoon caricature of what a woman should look like. Beatress offers Mary a ridiculous sum of money if she will perform some plastic surgery on her friend Ruby that no AMA certified doctor would even dream of doing. Once again, Mary is desperate, and though she has promised herself “never again” she does it anyway, telling Beattress that this is the last time.
At this point most stories would have this seedy underworld continuing to infiltrate her life, asking for increasingly more macabre favors until she gets caught. But the underworld doesn’t pull Mary down to its level, it leaves her alone until a personal tragedy in her life causes her to seek it out like a long lost friend and embrace it fully. Mary uses her underworld connections to settle a personal vendetta and then once she realizes the rush that surgery gives her she uses these same connections to open up a black market body modification business.
The key to this movie working is Mary. It’s not a role that just anyone can play and the wrong actress portraying the tragic anti-hero of this piece can sink the whole thing. The Soska sisters picked the perfect actress in Katharine Isabelle.
Horror aficianados will recognize Isabelle as the titular character of the Canadian werewolf movie Ginger Snaps. Less genre-savvy chodes might recognize her as “that chick that got her tits out in Freddy vs. Jason” (I have heard this title used far more often than I should. Though I like the movie I have to say she’s not great in it and she would agree with me). Isabelle belongs in a lot more genre movies and just hasn’t been, for some bizarre reason. Hopefully this will remedy that.
Mary has to start out the movie as a smart, somewhat quirky, and fairly normal young woman and come out the other end a jaded, cruel, and yet strangely sympathetic character. Achieving this change is difficult enough but actually blending one extreme into another is harder than it looks, many viewers will pick Mary’s trauma as the moment she goes dark but I noticed the shadows creeping at the edge of her morality well before that happened. Mary’s change feels real and organic, and shows how deeply Isabelle was able to understand the character and the Soskas’ vision.
All the credit can’t go to Katharine Isabelle alone. The Soska sisters have written a smart, dark, and sadistically entertaining thriller that’s beautifully affecting and darkly amusing at the same time. A lot of other directors or writers would have focused more on the revenge aspect, or the illegal body mod surgery, or the sadism. While focusing on any of these things wouldn’t have ruined the movie or made it bad, I feel it would’ve ultimately cheapened the movie to more of a cheap spectacle than what it is. All of these elements are present but they’re only touched on briefly as pieces of a larger tapestry.
There’s a fair amount of restraint when it comes to the blood and gore angle as well. Mary’s first patient is in a bad way when she sees him, but the rest of her surgeries show only a minor shot of a scalpel cutting flesh and maybe the sterilized and healed result later on. This may have been a budgetary issue but it helps keep the movie from feeling too exploitative. It’s a movie about emotion and ethics, not gory set-pieces, but it’s a shame that we never get to see the end result of Mary’s most elaborate surgery on a pair of twin sisters (the Soskas). The audience is merely shown a drawing of what they are supposed to look like when they heal.
The only complaint I have character-wise is with Billy. Mary is the only fully developed character, which isn’t really to the detriment of the movie as her perspective is the only one that matters in this story. However, Billy gets a fairly large chunk of the story to himself. He obviously both loves and fears Mary but it’s difficult to tell why this is important.
At one point he saves her from being caught by the police but his story keeps developing past that point, moving toward an endgame that never comes. He has frequent day dreams about her and the final one makes it unclear whether a certain big scene actually took place or not.
American Mary is a great movie worth watching and rewatching. It puts various social and personal issues under a microscope while also showing how darkness can grow in someone when they’re exposed to strife. It’s a blend of so many different genres and styles that somehow comes together and features one of the best female anti-heroes in the last ten years.
There’s a “making of” documentary on the disk as well as a commentary track featuring the Soska Sisters, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk. Both divulge a few interesting tidbits. There are english-language subtitles.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars