American Mary (2012) Mary, Mary, Why you Buggin'?
I always worry about medical students. After all, there is a fine line between “I want to cut this guy open and save him” and “I want to cut this guy open and mess around in his bits for shits and giggles“. While both parties might think slicing open the human body is a fun time, I do wonder who gets more out of it, the surgeon who is paid big bucks or the killer who does it just for the enjoyment. The lead character of the Soska Sister's second film, American Mary, walks a number of fine lines, morally, sexually, and professionally over the course of the film. It is the lead character's ability to navigate these split hair differences (for better or worse) that propels the action and this thriller, yes, thriller, toward a blood drenched conclusion. So come with me as I slice my way into the world of underground surgery, body modification, and lots and lots of blood that is American Mary.
The reason in the first paragraph I repeated that American Mary is a thriller is that it is being marketed as a horror movie. I firmly disagree with this notion. Save for a special few, most of the horrible acts in the film are performed our protagonist on willing participants, and the only horror is for squares like me who think "Oh, yeah. What’s going to make you feel better about life is if you switch left arms with someone else, certainly.” There certainly is a degree of me not being able to wrap my mind around why anyone would want any of these things done to them, but I also respect the rights of any nut who wants to get a tail put on or some kind of crazy implant or bifurcate your penis (as long as I don't have to watch or look at it later). There are certainly some surgical nightmares (and a bit of applied violence) that will make even the most non-squeamish viewer consider turning away, but as the film took such a turn toward the crime type vibe, the plot relies more on suspense notes (Has Mary gone mad, will she get caught, and/or what kind of fucked up shit does this person want?) than gore to flesh out the film. I admire this artistic choice, and I tip my hat to the sisters for not allowing the movie to rely solely on guts and grue.
One bit of horror that American Mary did provide was the horrible accents on Jen and Sylvia Soska, the directors of American Mary, when they show up as twins looking to feel more connected via surgery. The operation and their desires are weird and fitting, but saddling themselves with an oddball Russian-German accent did their performance no favors. Hasn't anyone learned from Tarantino in Django Unchained? Directors should be sparing about using themselves in movies and when they do, they don't need a trick or gimmick, just say your line and get back behind the camera. Sure, Hitchcock did it in (almost) every film, but that was Hitchcock who knew better than to speak. Forcing this bit of indulgent nonsense into almost the dead center of American Mary detracted from the flow, and suddenly seeing the Soska Sisters, who are very specific and recognizable, it jolted me right out of the film's reality. I'm sure if you don't know they are it won't be that jarring, but their uneven performances and accents might anyhow.
Katharine Isabelle does a fine job grounding the movie so her character’s descent into sketchy surgical practices comes with a heavy dose of sympathy. Tristan Risk is the real revelation though. Her performance as the human Betty Boop is solid, and the makeup job makes her appearance strange and unsettling in an almost inhuman way. The miracle is that she overcomes the layers of prosthetics to bring pathos and emotion to the character. When first introduced, it is easy to think her an absolute freak, but, by the film’s end, she seems like a sweet, lovely girl that anyone should be happy to know. The movie comes into more of a roadblock when it comes to the male characters. Antonio Cupo’s bar owner is shown to be a wishy washy, scummy bastard, and he’s the best of the lot. In a bit of turnabout is fair play, the Soska Sisters have written every male character as a terrible person, a rapist, a liar, a freak, a thief, and none are shown to have dynamic characters. While I can understand this desire, I wish film makers, both male and female, could just have realistic, flawed characters of both genders and not characterize based solely on the equipment contained in their trousers.
American Mary, while kind of poorly titled (though I suppose they wanted to avoid using "Bloody Mary") and containing some missteps, makes for a clear statement that the Soska Sisters have something to add to the conversation. I still haven’t checked out their debut film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, but it is on my agenda. American Mary takes a look at how we see ourselves. Sometimes that means that we want to tattoo or scarify our bodies in some way to make a statement. Sometimes that means we have to make changes in our mind to deal with parts of our lives or do unpleasant things. Sometimes that means we want to remake ourselves entirely from the inside out. However we define ourselves is a delicate procedure, and if that definition is removed, shattered, or altered, it could be the deepest cut of all.