American Mary

Sisters with nothing to say
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2012
Director: 
Jen & Sylvia Soska
Starring: 
Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, Clay St. Thomas
The Setup: 
Dropout med student becomes unofficial surgeon to the body modification set.
Discussion: 

This sounded very interesting, a story about a woman studying surgery who ends up performing extreme body modifications to make a little money on the side, and also to extract revenge on her enemies. And it was written and directed by two identical twin sisters, so they might have some interesting insights to share about body image and how it affects identity. Reading reviews found that the film elicited either raves or pans, but little in between, raising hopes that it might be so interesting and unconventional that it eluded the grasp of half its audience. But, sadly, once again we have to note the difference, the wide and yawning distance, between referring to a topic and having something to say about it. And this film, sadly, raises a ton of fascinating topics, then doesn't have a single thing to say about them, and is so shoddily made it's doubtful its directors could make a statement if they wanted to.

Mary is a medical student specializing in surgery, and the credits find her practicing on an uncooked turkey. Already we note that her favored surgical garments are black lingerie and that she has somehow found an outlet that sells black surgical gloves. Her professor, Dr. Walsh, is a snide and outrageously insulting prick from the get-go, and derides Mary for being a problem student, even as we see she is able to expertly answer all of his questions while seemingly not even paying attention (hint writers: that is a PROBLEM). We see that Mary has a close relationship with her "Nana," whom she calls frequently, and is way behind in her student loans.

This leads her to go interview for a "masseuse" job at a nightclub, where she apparently thinks it'll impress her new boss to strip while expressing an attitude of haughty contempt. While there, someone has been knifed from abdomen to chin, and Mary's surgical skills are called for. She soon finds herself called and visited by Beatress, who has clearly had a number of surgeries to make herself look like Betty Boop. The first appearance of Beatress is so spooky it raises hopes that the rest of the film will have something to follow through with. Beatress connects Mary with a woman who has undergone several surgeries to make herself look like a doll, and wants Mary to remove her nipples and close up her vagina in order to be even more like a Barbie-type doll, because dolls "can be naked without being sexualized or degraded." Okay, extremely troubling statement, because it is clearly misguided, but we're never sure if the character is misguided, or the script is misguided. Mary does the surgery at a veterinary clinic after hours (where the anesthesia just happens to be appropriate for humans), and, conveniently, she can just pass the patient off to another doctor that will oversee the healing and provide antibiotics. Mary chooses to perform the surgery in six-inch high heels.

Then one of the male surgeons, Dr. Grant, invites Mary to a party of surgeons, including Dr. Walsh, and Mary is excited to be accepted into this exclusive group. She goes to the party, is slipped a roofie, and is videotaped and raped by Dr. Walsh. Making this entire film more frustrating is the inclusion of several very good elements, which only emphasize the disappointment of what a piece of shit it is overall. One of these excellent elements Is that as Mary is starting to feel the roofie, we can see a woman laid out on the kitchen counter and being felt up by four men behind her, vaguely out of focus. Looking on IMDb, I see that the film is criticized for being a male-bashing exercise, portraying every man as a rapist, but this isn’t true, as we have a detective who shows up later and certain characters at the nightclub, like a big bouncer, who are sweet and protective.

SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, why waste time? Why let precious seconds go by? Why do tomorrow what you can do today?Mary has no sooner stumbled home from her rape when she makes arrangements with her boss Billy at the nightclub to have Dr. Walsh kidnapped and brought to her, where she sets up to do all sorts of awful surgeries to him. We don’t see the results until later. Then two identical twins come in to see Mary, and they are played by the directors themselves. Personally, I think directors should give good hard thought before appearing in their own films, because if the film is not good, it’s even easier to focus on THEM as people. That's them, below. They want to have their arms cut off and switched onto the other’s body, to which Mary replies: “How’s Friday?” We’ll come back to how star Katharine Isabelle is far and away the best thing about this film and her delivery of lines like that is largely what keeps this tolerable. Anyway, the surgery is done, and like so many things here, has no implications, no larger resonance, no real purpose. There is a clever bit in playing a song that says “I want your body, and you want my body” during the surgery.

Then we return and find out what happened to Dr. Walsh. He’s a quadriplegic with a split tongue [and several other painful modifications, we are led to imagine] and is hanging from hooks in his flesh in your average everyday secret hideout that, you know, are easily accessible. Mary is torturing him anew when SUDDENLY a cop appears out of nowhere, whom she beats to death quite, quite extensively. We never hear a word about this again, nobody comes looking for the cop, Mary has no problems with body disposal, nobody sees the cop’s police car parked outside—nuttin’. But by now the movie is becoming little but a series of unrelated and arbitrarily-placed scenes.

So we are apparently supposed to interpret one scene in which Billy has a sexual fantasy about Mary to mean that he is IN LOVE with her, and are not supposed to flinch, despite zero setup, that she is somehow IN LOVE with him. He has kidnapped Dr. Grant, the other surgeon who hosted the rape party, and apparently meted out some kind of justice. Mary finds this out from the very polite detective who shows up asking questions and accepts all her answers at face value. We see that Billy now has the video of Mary’s rape, and gets off to it. Then Mary comes in and finds Billy getting a blowjob, and follows the woman into the bathroom and threatens her with her pack of surgical tools, but ultimately lets her go. While this is happening, you’re like “Who? What? Why?” because we have had no set-up that Mary is “in love” with Billy, so it’s just suddenly out of character and unmotivated.

In here Mary receives a call from Nana that seems short and says nothing, and from that she somehow knows that her Nana is dead. Do people really use dead relatives’ phones to inform people of their passing? Then Mary wordlessly hangs up, and deletes his Nana’s contact info, and then—that’s it! Onto the next thing! No time for connection or consequences or anything connecting these incidents together, folks! We suddenly shift to the Barbie-doll woman, whose boyfriend seems shocked to find that she no longer has nipples or a vagina. Then Beatress calls Mary to warn her, because she’s been beaten and is lying on the brink of death, and then Mary finds a man in her apartment who stabs her. She tries some self-surgery, but fails, and we see her lying on the floor, maybe vaguely arranged to suggest some kind of pin-up? Honestly, by this point it’s virtually impossible to sort out what is intentional and what is carelessness. Then it’s over.

Before we leave the spoilers: Once it was over, I turned to my friend and asked him who the guy who killed her supposedly was? He thought it was the doll-woman’s husband, earlier mentioned once, who went on a murder spree having discovered what happened to his wife. But… seems hard to believe he was unaware of her penchant for body modification? And it’s enough to send him on a killing spree? Really, no one here seeks redress through legal means? Not ONE person?
< < < SPOILERS END

Again, there are several very good elements to this, which only serve to make it more frustrating that the whole is such an overall piece of garbage. The cinematography is good. Much of Mary’s dialogue is good, and has a humorously casual breeziness that contrasts well with the horror of what is happening. Some of the nightclub scenes take place in silence or very low music, which gives them a good air of surreality. And let’s face it: REALLY interesting and rich topic, right? The best thing about it and the one and only reason it works AT ALL, is Katherine Isabelle [star of Ginger Snaps] as Mary. Her nonplussed expressions and line readings really hold the entire thing together and provide a reason to continue watching. Honestly, I think the Soska sisters should donate at least half of their profits from this film to her and a percentage of profits from any future film they should make, because without Isabelle, this would be virtually unwatchable.

But overall… too bad. Way too bad. The biggest disappointment is wanting a horror movie that finally delves into extreme body modification, then has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to say about it. This could just as easily have been about taxidermy or collecting Hello Kitty merchandise or being a pizza lover. The irony is that the Soska’s may have backed away from statements about body modification so as not to upset the community… but inadvertently ended up with a movie that, because it says nothing about them, sets them up as freaks to be stared at and creeped out by. The second big disappointment is that it just doesn’t tell a coherent story. It is sold as a “rape revenge” movie [although that content comprises little more than a Girl With Dragon Tattoo remake], but that content makes up just a third of the film, and, like everything else, really goes nowhere. The Soska sisters really need to take some literature classes or creative writing classes and learn storytelling basics—like better ways to both set up characters, motivations and incidents, and also pay them off, so you don’t have the feeling the film is rife with things come out of the blue or happen and then have no consequences, go nowhere. Finally, why American Mary? Is there supposed to be something uniquely American about this story? Maybe because her student loans are so high and she’s forced to turn to this sideline business? That’s just a guess.

So anyway, a big bummer, made worse by the fact that there are several very good elements, and one had high hopes for a horror film that would delve into the world and mindset that results in body modifications. But alas, that movie has yet to be made, and Soska, sisters, I’m serious, go back to school and learn to construct a story.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn’t bother, but you’re an adult.