Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: American Mary (2013)

American Mary (2013)

American Mary is a solid, though not great, sophomore effort from writers/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska set in the fringe, bizarre world of body modification, where brave or crazy individuals go far beyond the usual tattoos and piercings to have various implants and surgeries designed to fundamentally change their appearance -- things like devil horns, tongue splitting, the removal of sexual features to look more like a doll, and genital modifications. While it's far from perfect, suffering from a disjointed plot that loses direction by the end, its novel premise and its dazzling performance by its lead actress make this one to seek out on Netflix or Redbox.

Katharine Isabelle plays the eponymous Mary Mason, a med school student struggling to pay her bills who turns to stripping in order to make quick cash. However, when her would-be boss finds out about her medical knowledge, he hires her to work as a back-alley doctor instead after one of his associates gets brutally attacked. Through one of the strip club's dancers, a woman named Beatress who has had plastic surgery to look like Betty Boop, Mary gets involved in the world of body modification, becoming an in-demand surgeon making money hand over fist. However, when she is drugged and date raped by a professor, her life takes a much darker turn.

Isabelle is at least half of what makes this film work as well as it does. I don't think that the Soskas could've found a better actor for the role if they had tried. This film is an acting showcase for Isabelle, running through a wide range of emotions and hitting them all. Whether she was the struggling, frazzled med school student at the beginning, or the increasingly detached and possibly mad surgeon after she begins sliding into darkness, I bought Mary as a character, and was gripped throughout her transformation. A lesser actress would've played one half of Mary well and struggled in the other, but Isabelle nails it. Between this, her breakthrough role in Ginger Snaps back in 2000, and the fact that she's absolutely gorgeous on top of it, Isabelle has shown that she deserves a lot more than just the bit parts and low-budget films she's been paying the bills with.

On the directing side, the Soska sisters shoot this film well. Shots are long and coherently edited, giving Isabelle plenty of room to show off her acting chops. There is quite a lot of gory, surgery-related madness in this film, with all manner of really bizarre body modifications on display (mainly courtesy of cameos from people actually from the body-mod community), with the big kicker being an appearance by the Soskas themselves as a pair of German twins (with over-the-top accents) who want to swap arms. This film wholeheartedly embraces the carnival sideshow atmosphere of its subject matter with a big smile on its face. However, there is very little in the way of genuine violence, the film instead working to suggest rather than show. After seeing all the bizarre imagery that this film is packed with, it can seem strange that the most chilling scenes in this film, the parts where Mary is taunting her helpless former professor, are those that contain no gore whatsoever. The fact that this film is able to pull off such a frightening atmosphere in the second half is a testament to the skill of the Soska sisters as directors and Isabelle as an actor.

Because when it comes to the story here, the Soskas aren't as able at writing as they are at directing. While I loved the first two-thirds of this movie, in the third act it suddenly loses direction, with three disparate and largely unrelated plot threads all competing for attention. The film doesn't know if it wants to be about Mary staying one step ahead of the police, the disgruntled husband of one of her clients trying to track her down and get revenge, or her relationship with Billy (Antonio Cupo), the owner of the strip club where she started her career. All of this is wrapped up in a fairly disappointing manner considering what came before, with little of it coming together and the film as a whole feeling like it is lacking a resolution. Had it restricted its attention to just one or even two of those aforementioned plots, this film would've been more focused and much better off for it, but as it is, I was let down by how this film ended.

Score: 3 out of 5

Poor ending aside, this is a very good pick for fans of indie horror looking for something offbeat, anchored by Katharine Isabelle's excellent performance and some interesting and truly original subject matter.

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