There’s something to be said for an incredibly fun movie with some not-so-small problems. The degree of that something most likely differs depending on the viewer, but enough good in a film can often overcome any amount of bad.
Luckily for American Mary, that theory holds true as script and editing issues are partially overcome with wit, personality and gleeful audacity. It also helps that the film features two strongly addictive female performances, one lead and one supporting, that anchor the viewers’ attention and sympathies.
Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a medical student heading towards a career as a surgeon, but her biggest challenge can’t be found in the classroom. It’s in her bank account… her empty bank account. Hoping to earn some quick cash she answers an ad for a strip club, but before she can even audition she’s cajoled into applying her med skills on a man in need of help. (He could also use a new eyeball.) That incident pays far more than stripping ever could, and soon she’s lining up patients looking for surgical help and body modifications that hospitals and the legal system don’t allow.
Like taking away a woman’s exterior sexuality, adding devil horns to someone’s head or splitting a guy’s penis down the middle…
Mary’s trouble starts when she runs afoul of one of her professors, but it’s a late night party with the hospital’s surgeons that pushes her over the edge. The men she’s hoping to respect and impress allow a despicable assault that turns her surgery-for-profit endeavors in a more anger-fueled direction, and that in turn sets her on an inevitably deadly path. She has few friends, but she finds two in Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk), a woman who’s shaped her body and face to resemble Betty Boop, and Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo), the club manager with whom she develops an unspoken romance.
Writers/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (aka The Twisted Twins) have delivered a sophomore effort that improves on every single aspect of their debut film, Dead Hooker In a Trunk. It can’t be overstated how much of an improvement this film is for them. Their direction combined with Brian Pearson’s cinematography results in a beautifully shot feature filled with a vibrant color palette and overhead shots, and the story is a fresh creation focused on character instead of simply attempting to ape the grindhouse aesthetic. And most importantly, it’s a legitimately entertaining experience that will have viewers laughing and cheering for the lovely Mary.
That said, American Mary remains a deeply flawed film.
The Soskas can’t seem to decide if they’re making a body horror film, a revenge thriller or a black comedy, and while it’s possible to mix these genres to great effect the sisters haven’t quite figured out how to manage it. The film jumps jarringly at times from narrative points and genre impulses, and the result is a disjointed focus that lessens the effect of events. Their script also takes Mary in an unexpected and unexplained direction in the third act that endangers viewers’ relationship with her.
And for a movie featuring illicit surgeries, murder, mutilation, torture and worse, this is a remarkably tame film. Trim a few scenes and a lot of “fuck’s” and it’s almost a PG-13 experience. We see Mary planning surgery then repeatedly jump to the end result with barely nothing in between. It’s a noticeable gap in an otherwise dark and violent movie, and their absence removes what could have been additional visceral thrills. It’s possible the decision was a budgetary one, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
The Soskas do earn points for not portraying the bod-mod community, some of whom star in the film, as freaks to be shunned or ridiculed. There’s a definite shock factor there, but Mary treats them as the people they are instead of the “weirdos” they seem to some.
American Mary is not a great film, but it’s a great deal of fun. Mary is a wonderfully twisted and confident protagonist who does her gender proud, and Isabelle’s performance sells it all causing a twisted torrent of emotions in viewers who will find themselves laughing and cringing in equal measure.
The Upside: Katharine Isabelle’s performance is a near perfect balance of funny, sexy and scary as hell; Tristan Risk steals scenes in a role that could easily have been nothing but surface (prosthetic) weirdness; very funny, often when terrible things are happening onscreen; ridiculously wonderful step up from the Soskas’ first film in every regard
The Downside: Tone and narrative feel more than a little jumbled at times; Mary’s attitude change towards the end isn’t wholly convincing; too tame for the subject matter and events
On the Side: The Soska Twins dedicate the film to Eli Roth in the end credits for his help, compliments and encouragement after their debut.