Review: American Mary

2013/06/04 16:09:12 +00:00 | Todd Gilchrist

Even for a person with no tattoos or piercings and little interest in goth pin-up culture, there’s plenty of interest to explore in American Mary. The story of a struggling medical student who more or less accidentally becomes a body modification expert, the sophomore effort from twin filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska is polished and smart.

American Mary is significant step up in quality from their debut, Dead Hooker In A Trunk, even when it fails to dissect the larger sociological context or even the direct emotional ramifications of its young protagonist’s unconventional career choice. Alternately creepy and languid, incisive and aimless, American Mary examines a provocative subject, heralding the duo as a couple of the genre’s next great voices – that is, as soon as their follow-through proves as strong as their set-up.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) plays Mary Mason, an aspiring surgeon who turns to stripping in order to pay her bills. Before she can drop trou, however, shady club owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) enlists her – at a much more handsome rate -- to perform some emergency surgery on a torture victim he’d rather not see die. Although she intends the procedure to be a salve for her immediate financial woes, she succumbs to the promise of a steady income and interesting work after dropping out of medical school and rebranding herself as a body modification specialist. But after the authorities approach her with questions about some of her former clients, Mary is forced to decide whether or not the path she’s chosen is the one she truly wants – and if it is, is it worth the moral weight that it exerts on her conscience?

What’s most interesting about American Mary is how cleanly and evenly the character’s journey is towards her newfound vocation: slowly stripped of her “legitimate” ambitions even as she’s validated by this mysterious new community, Mary acquiesces to her role as a body artist with the right amount of skepticism, and an equally right amount of convincing. The film’s portrait of medical instructors is to say the least unflattering, particularly after Mary is drugged and assaulted at a party which literally seems designed by professors for the purpose of seducing unwilling co-eds, but her assailant serves as a melancholy reminder that achieving one’s goals seldom comes in the form we expect, and at a cost greater than we might want to pay. At the same time, it never undersells her actual skills, making Mary an empowered and capable young doctor, so that when she turns to more unconventional forms of surgery, there’s little sense that she chose illegality because she couldn’t hack it, so to speak, as a real-deal doctor.

But because (to my admittedly limited knowledge) body modification is legal and fairly respected as an alternative but legitimate form of personal expression, there’s still sort of a false equivalency to her choice, primarily because the film portrays this sort of surgery not just as dangerous (which given her nonprofessional status is understandable) but morally dubious. There’s something genuinely interesting about a subculture of people who believe in altering their physicality in grand ways in order to assert their individuality, but the film barely addresses these ideas and instead focuses on the unevenly seductive success she enjoys as the performer of these surgeries. Moreover, as the Soskas more and more firmly establish Mary within that underground community, her growing complacency with it mirrors an absence of ideas how further to explore it, which may account for a series of plot developments in the final third of the movie which feel like they come out of nowhere.

Ultimately, the twin filmmakers’ sophomore feature ventures towards a maturity and sophistication that it never manages to fully harness, and lacks a crucial sort of focus to make its purely visceral ideas truly impactful. But the film’s use of so many current signposts of the genre and the culture surrounding it -- brooding characters, secret societies, a gothic, burlesque aesthetic, and of course, an industrial-sludge soundtrack – suggests it will easily find a healthy fan base. And more significantly, in compared to the meanies who typically turn female-driven stories into nihilistic celebrations of brutality, the Soskas’ sensitivity to their characters here – both male and female -- suggests they’re imminently capable of combining emotional intensity and narrative poetry. In other words, American Mary isn’t fully successful, but it suggests that Jen and Sylvia Soska possess real, substantive potential – and in a genre often occupied by people interested in making only cosmetic changes to its face, someone willing to cut deeper, literally and conceptually, is a welcome change.

Film Score: 2.5/5