Fresh from Cannes earlier this year, the much anticipated psychological thriller American Mary from the ‘Twisted Twins’ Jen and Sylvia Soska, opened the proceedings of the final day of FrightFest the 13th.
You may wonder whether at 11 am in the morning your breakfast would have had enough time to digest before taking a trip into the minds of the ‘Twisted Twins’ and the world of body modification? American Mary introduces us to the talented medical student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) whose debt problems propel her to seek out seedy work as a masseuse at a local strip club run by Billy (Antonio Cupo). There Mary realises the cold hard cash people will pay for her surgical skills, and quickly resolves her financial woes through moonlighting in the subversive world of body modification. Betrayal by the surgeons she once admired only pushes Mary further into the socially subversive community, where she tragically combines body modification with vengeance. Sacrificing her morality she discovers the dark underbelly of the American Dream and its price.
From the beautifully gentle and moving Ava Maria that opens the film, American Mary feels a more decidedly polished second directorial effort than Dead Hooker In a Trunk (review here) This is possibly down to the decision by the ‘Twisted Twins’ to remain exclusively behind the camera and concentrate on developing themselves as writer directors; albeit we are treated to a small cameo appearance. Having a bigger budget to work with, and a talented actress in Katharine Isabelle was of course no disadvantage, but what I witnessed with American Mary was the coming out party for the ‘Twisted Twins. Not since the initial promise exhibited by directors: Sam Mendes, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Alexander Payne and Christopher Nolan have I felt the need for such anticipation, but the ‘Twisted Twins’ along with another promising young director Duncan Jones give cause for excitement. American Mary is not just decidedly more polished, it is evidence they have matured as narrative and visual storytellers, fulfilling the promise exhibited in DHIAT.
There is a moment in the film when one of the surgeons tells Mary, “You need a grim sense of humour when you start cutting into people.” The film’s comedic moments will certainly be appreciated by those with a dark sense of humour. Much like Friedkin’s Exorcist and Killer Joe’s serious moments are misunderstood, American Mary’s may be too. Insightful and emotional moments, when the tragedy and pain of the human condition is most exposed, these moments may wind up being perceived in a comical light. But if Mary needs a grim sense of humour, the same may very well be said about us, the film’s audience. Katharine Isabelle delivers an accomplished performance as the body modification surgeon Mary Mason. The character of Mary is in perpetual motion, continually evolving throughout the film, from the fairy tale like character full of naïve innocence that as her eyes opened to the horrors and dangers of the world, to the wronged and vengeful woman, to a protagonist coming to terms with how her choices have shaped her for better or for worse. Mary is one of cinema’s victims, a woman who chooses fight over flight, and if she is monstrous in moments, it stems from how she is perceived and treated by those around her. This is the fascinating conundrum of Mary, and Isabelle expertly captures Mary’s complexity and evolution.
American Mary is a thoughtful film, and one that does not have a singular interpretation. Too it defies categorisation. Predominantly a psychological thriller, it incorporates elements of comedy and horror to go along with a narrative that can be viewed as a critique of the American Dream, a modern retelling of the Greek Myth’s, of the relationship between the God’s and mortal man, or even a postmodern fairy tale. Original and thought provoking, the film informs through entertainment, providing us a window through which we can gain an insight into the world of body modification; a world that has no reason to be thought of as subversive or its inhabitants demonised. This is the potential of cinema, of art, to simultaneously entertain and inform, to challenge our pre-conceptions, and American Mary as entertaining, as it often is, goes beyond simply embracing entertainment value.
For some American Mary will be experienced as a horror, for others the genre will be of little significance. Rather it stands as an interesting encounter on the film 2012 landscape. To watch American Mary is to see three talented women in a male dominated industry deliver a film full of superlative adjectives. Isabelle should be considered an actress to watch and an actress capable of taking on further leading roles, and the ‘Twisted Twins’ if American Mary was written in two weeks have upped the ante from DHIAT’s mere proposition of talent.
Review by Paul Risker