American Mary (2012) was directed by a twin sister duo from Canada, Jen and Sylvia Soska. The twin sisters’ previous and first directing endeavor, Dead Hooker in A Trunk (2009), received mixed reviews but it intrigued several critics and fans alike. American Mary was an introduction to Soskas’ work for me and it was mostly an enjoyable first glimpse into their creative world. I will be leaving out the conclusion of the movie and major spoilers but I will mention scenes not shown in the trailer.
The plot itself starts with a prototypical story of a struggling female medicine student but the event that acts as a catalyst for its ending was a fresh idea that brought my impression of the movie over to the positive side. Mary struggles to balance her studies with work and she looks for money in the sex industry after finding herself unemployed. An unexpected turn of events presents her with a completely different opportunity that allows her to use surgical skills from med school. Thus, Mary becomes a highly sought out body modification artist.
A portrayal of subculture in any movie can be either positive and complex or reduced and cliché-based. American Mary is both but people unfamiliar with the subculture might take away that these people live removed from society, they are unhappy, and will cross established personal boundaries. In a rather shocking scene, a twin sister duo (played by the Soska sisters) enters a strip club while one of them offers money to a stripper just to bite into her tongue. The sisters then leave to meet with Mary while the stripper is left behind crying. The stripper consented to the kiss but not to have her tongue bitten until she bleeds. This disregard for consent and boundaries is not so rare in the movie. Beatress, who has her body altered to resemble Betty Boop, brushes off Mary’s pleads to leave her alone. Mary’s other clients appear to be ordinary happy people, but the stories of these people are untold and less emphasized than those of customers from the underground scene. My own interest and experience with subcultures allows me to understand that the Soska sisters probably did not intend to imply that there must be something wrong with you if you desire to have your limb or vulva removed. The characters do attain the happiness that they seek when their body reflects how they feel about themselves, but the use of such clichés is unexciting and might harm the community.
Ruby and Beatress are two most extremely body modified characters in the movie. The stripper Beatress, as it was already mentioned, has paid thousands of dollars to resemble Betty Boop. Her friend, a fashion designer Ruby, aims to become a real-life doll, which she achieves thanks to Mary. Ruby and Beatress became my favorite characters despite their pushy personalities, especially Beatress’s, perhaps because she is truly happy when her outward appearance matches how she feels on the inside. Beatress and Ruby are unapologetically themselves.
The movie does not shy away from medical humor, for example, the surgeons call themselves “slashers” and joke around that they cut people for living. This might be interpreted as a criticism of society that accepts one type of surgical work, but is often critical of plastic operations and even more so of body modifications. Although the last category does not fall under life-saving procedures aimed at saving the body, body modifications can help treat depression or anxiety stemming from body dysmorphia related issues. Here, however, I am not sure the movie carries this message as well as I would like it to.
Gore is modest and scarce and it does not go further than the second Hannibal Lecter movie (Hannibal, 2001), for example. Most work happens outside camera’s view, close-ups are rare and the movie often shows patients already with bandages on. A viewer who considers Hannibal or most criminal TV series (CSI, Bones) their limit for gore might feel a little uncomfortable, but a viewer expecting detailed gory scenes might be less impressed. The make-up and practical effects team transformed Tristan Risk (Beatress) and Paula Lindberg (Ruby) into a real-life Betty Boop and a real-life doll whose appearances are both alluring and uncomfortable. Looking at them brought up some uncanny feelings which is a sign of an impressive work for any horror film, especially for one with a lower budge. Soska sisters also hired people with real body modifications to play some of Mary’s patients.
Seeing Mary becoming an artist who gets lost in her work and pushes the boundaries too far will probably keep most people watching. Katherine Isabelle’s acting suits the character and she mostly manages to capture Mary’s changing personality. Her performance could have been stronger and rely less on the doe-deer glassy eyed look to express her character’s fading connection to life but she is able to carry the movie until its conclusion.
I eagerly awaited what fate the conclusion brings to other characters as I became engaged with their stories. The strip club owner Antonio does not remain a mere connection between Mary and some clients and his own preoccupation with Mary is endearing despite Billy Barker’s uneven performance.
The movie opens and closes with the song “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert. This choice is not particularly original as Mary is the name of the main character. Nevertheless, the analogy is not lost here as Mary indeed listens to the wishes of those who have been refused help (body modification) elsewhere, in this case, by the surgeons.
American Mary is a solid 5/10 movie but watching it did not make me feel like I had just wasted an hour and a half of my life. On the contrary, I felt anticipation as I witnessed the dramatic conclusion unravel and I felt sadness for characters who were punished for simply expressing themselves. I would also not classify this movie as a horror movie because it simply is not one; there are no supernatural monsters. I would describe it as a psychological thriller about an American Mary who (justifiably) becomes a raging women in what is essentially a rape-revenge film.