Directed by Jen and Silvia Soska
Distributed by XLRator Media
After reading loads of positive reviews and eagerly anticipating a new film starring the wonderful and woefully underemployed actress Katharine Isabelle, I was more than a little disappointed to hear fellow Dread Central contributor Brad McHargue call out American Mary for being, well, not-so-great. It is, he pointed out, well shot and features great performances by Isabelle and Tristan Risk, but it is also built upon a mess of a screenplay. Though I don’t always agree with Brad’s opinions, I’ve always respected them, and his “thumbs down” was a bit sobering after reading so many laudatory pieces on it.
Now, after having seen the film, I’m not certain I could say that Mr. McHargue was wrong. The script is indeed a mess. But in this case, this reviewer doesn’t see that as a negative. In fact, the script seems to be more of an affront to traditional three-act storytelling rather than being simply ignorant of it. The script for American Mary seems to eschew convention just as much as the film’s eponymous character and her endearingly bizarre clientele. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
American Mary concerns Mary Mason, a young student struggling to pay her bills as she makes her way through med school. With massive debt looming and her phone about to be shut off, Mary reluctantly considers taking a job as a stripper, going so far as to take her resume to her audition for sleazy club owner Billy (Cupo). When one of Billy’s criminal associates winds up in his bar sporting severe wounds and seeking help, he enlists Mary to tend to the man’s wounds in exchange for silence and a great deal of cash. And, of course, Mary complies.
Not long after, Mary is contacted by Beatress (Risk), a stripper surgically reformed to look like a living Betty Boop, who had overheard Mary’s financial woes and is aware of her surgical prowess and willingness to skirt the law for the right amount of cash. It seems Beatress has a friend interested in having some manner of body modification surgery performed – the type that reputable surgeons might refuse to do. With yet more money tossed her way, Mary agrees to the procedure and eventually finds herself highly in demand by a number of folks interested in all manner of personal image tweaking. But even as Mary’s reputation amongst this underground grows, a violent incident sends Mary spiraling into insanity, even as she becomes ever more efficient and lethal with the scalpel she wields.
With its often gorgeous photography and strong lead performance by Isabelle, along with its offbeat subject matter, American Mary has become one of my favorite genre films I’ve seen thus far this year. Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (the self branded “Twisted Twins”) have crafted an impressive film for their second outing (after their grindhousey debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk), creating a movie with quite the tricky tone – one that dances between darkly comedic and touchingly tragic, with very few missteps along the way.
In addition, the film’s central relationship between Mary and Billy is refreshing in that it’s in no way conventional. The two are obviously attracted to one another, and there is an odd sweetness to each scene they share, but the necessary connection the two need to make seems to be beyond them. I enjoyed how this played out in a subtle fashion, rather than having either character monologuing their innermost thoughts to telegraph each scene’s intention to the audience (as one might expect from a lesser film). Rather, the Soskas allow the briefest of looks or awkward silences to tell keenly interested viewers all they need to know about these people and how they feel about each other. Well done.
In addition, Mary’s madness is deftly handled, with Isabelle playing a woman who’s quite capable of hiding her boiling emotions for the bulk of the film – though once the inevitable cracks in her demeanor begin to show, Isabelle plays Mary as fierce and utterly lethal. Hers is a tragic story, with the film presenting her as both its hero and villain, all at once. We the audience can’t always cheer on her choices, though we can always sympathize because we’ve witnessed what led her down the horrible path she takes. It’s yet another powerhouse of a performance from an actress who really should’ve been an A-lister by now, after her impressive turn in cult hit Ginger Snaps and her brief but memorable role in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (to say nothing of her solid work in loads of indies and TV shows). Hopefully this film will get Ms. Isabelle the proper exposure she needs to climb the ranks in Hollywood. But if not, genre fans will no doubt be more than happy to see her headlining interesting indie pics like Mary.
For as much as I liked the film, though, it isn’t without its faults. The film’s wonky structure allows it to drift a bit at the halfway point, even introducing a detective character who is by and large entirely unnecessary. In addition, a few of the performances aren’t quite up to par with the leads (one otherwise wooden character uses foul language almost as a weapon, but neither the writing nor the performance is ever able to sell this character as a completely believable person). There is also a sequence of violence perpetrated on a character who simply waltzes into the proceedings from out of the blue, providing the film with a shocking burst of violence but little in the way of a setup or fallout. Still, these are nitpicks when judged against the whole.
XLRator Media has done a fine job in bringing Mary to disc. The image is sharp, with inky blacks and beautifully muted colors throughout. The DTS track is great as well, perfectly reproducing the film’s creepy sound design and affecting musical score (good work from composer Peter Allen).
Unfortunately, the bonus features section is a bit lacking. There is a seventeen-minute making-of (featuring some fun behind-the-scenes moments), and an audio commentary with the Soskas, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk. It’s an interesting if frustrating listen, full of fun and information – though one has to strain to hear Isabelle’s contributions, as she literally phoned in her part of the commentary. Still, it’s worth a listen for those enamored with the film and curious about its making. The theatrical trailer is also included, which is always nice.
Look – this flick will most certainly not be everyone’s cup o’ tea. In fact, you probably already have a good idea as to whether or not you’ll want to check it out. However, with its original script, offbeat tone, and fantastic lead performance, American Mary has claimed a top spot on this reviewer’s own personal Top Ten of 2013.
Can’t wait to see what the Soskas cook up next…
4 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5