AMERICAN MARY – Fantastic Fest Review
I’ve had this conversation on multiple occasions. When it comes to body modification of any kind — tattoos, piercings, etc. — I’m all for it. Go ahead. Cool. Express yourself. Experiment. As long as you’re a consenting adult, it’s your body and your choice. I actually think a lot of it is fascinating, even artistically accomplished. However, this comes with a flip side… I have zero body modifications. No reason. Just a personal choice. Why do I bring this up? Because when it comes to viewing a film like AMERICAN MARY, I can be as supportive and open-minded as I would like, but I’ll always remain someone viewing the culture from the outside. If you’re wondering why that matters, well… it matters a lot if you’re about to watch the sophomore outing from Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska, whose debut feature DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (2009) made waves as an ultra-violent indie flick amidst the festival circuit.
AMERICAN MARY begins harmlessly enough. Mary Mason, played by Katharine Isabelle (GINGER SNAPS), is a talented and promising young medical student, relentlessly honing her craft as a future surgeon. It’s a wonderfully uplifting American dream kind of back story, with Mary rising above her underprivileged background to make something of her self. Except there’s a catch… she’s flat ass broke. Bill collector’s harassing her daily, Mary must find a way to bankroll her education if she plans to continue on the path before her. Desperate, Mary succumbs to the monetary allure of selling her body. Mary meets with with Billy Barker (played by Antonio Cupo), unaware that this interview will unexpectedly lead to a much more morally corrupt yet higher paying gig.
With this horrifying experience behind her, and a handful of Benjamin Franklin’s in her pocket, Mary finds the long sought relief she needed, but things are about to change for her in a way she never expected when she is contacted by Beatress Johnson, played by Tristan Risk (DARKEST HOUR). A member of the general “extreme body mod” community, the artificially cute-as-a-cartoon Beatress lures Mary once more into the fray with the promise of deep pockets, but this time her clients are willing recipients of the services she can provide. Mary has one last epiphany, a tragic twist of fate that sends her own American dream down a much darker path as she follows the white rabbit deep into the underground.
The Soska sisters have a distinctly severe and forthright style of filmmaking that’s in your face, yet also carries enough mental meat between the buns to be more than merely visual fluff. The Soska sisters take chances and their stories dwell in the fringes, making for content that’s above the usual mix of shock cinema produced today. AMERICAN MARY is visually stunning, if not often repulsing, revolting or just plain outrageous. The colors of the film accentuate the characters, a vividly bizarre bunch, and the graphic nature of the film has it’s place, making it anything but needlessly gratuitous. On the flip side, the film’s pacing suffers on occasion, the writing is more forced than it is unrefined, and the message could be labeled as being worn too flagrantly on the filmmaking sisters’ sleeves.
It’s evident that the Soska sisters have done their research, even so far as casting members of the extreme body modification community within the film. AMERICAN MARY will likely prove as educational as it is shocking to those unaccustomed to this particular culture, but don’t let this frighten your from taking the chance. While AMERICAN MARY is not a finely-tuned masterpiece, when compared to the sister’s feature film debut, it’s a positive step in the right direction, led — perhaps even greatly benefiting from — a truly riveting performance from Katharine Isabelle, offering a compelling shift in range and an uncanny ability to freak the Hell out of the audience — especially the men – while somehow managing to maintain a hint of the innocent persona we swallow when first we meet her character.
Tristan Risk may not outshine Katharine Isabelle as an actress in AMERICAN MARY, but her presence is far from unnoticed or unappreciated. Beatress’ obsession with looking like Bettie Boop is a scene stealer in her first appearance, easing the audience into what’s in store with the gentle equivalent of a sledgehammer wrapped in a cheesecloth to soften the blow. The Soska sisters themselves make a particularly twisted cameo in the film, depicting a real urban legend within the body mod community. AMERICAN MARY is many things — a graphic horror display, a thriller, an expose of an underground culture, a very dark breed of Aesop’s fable, a revenge tale — but most of all, despite it’s flaws, AMERICAN MARY is a promissory note of better things to come from Jen and Sylvia, the Twisted Twins of terror.