Medical student develops a lucrative practice doing extreme plastic surgery. Soska Sisters want to address body image & medical ethics, plus gender roles & male domination. But while Katharine Isabelle is very good as “Mary,” cheesy production values & terrible acting by her male co-stars doom her best efforts. (JLH: 3/5) Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. Not yet seen by Rich.
Regular readers know that even though I’m not normally one for horror flicks, I am firmly committed to women filmmakers having the right to express their own visions as they see fit. Therefore, I go to as many female-directed films as I possibly can, regardless of genre, and I always hope for the best. Sometimes I am totally hooked. I thought Jennifer’s Body was a hoot, and I found Black Rock genuinely thought-provoking. So I wish I could say good things about American Mary too, but this time it’s tough.
American Mary was written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, twin sisters from Canada who started on the acting side, then formed their own production company (Twisted Twins Productions) and moved behind-the-camera in 2008. I have now read several interviews and background pieces, and honestly it’s hard not to love these women. They have a great sense of humor (writing on IMDb, for instance, that Jen’s nickname is “Bob” and Sylvia’s nickname is “Harvey”), and I think I understand what they’re trying to say in American Mary… but wishing doesn’t make it so.
When we first meet her, “Mary Mason” (Katharine Isabelle) is alone in her apartment sewing elegant rows of sutures on a raw turkey carcass. This bird is not for eating; Mary is an aspiring surgeon and she is practicing her technique. Mary is totally dedicated to her profession. Her social life consists of face-to-face conversations with her pet bird, and telephone conversations with her grandmother (switching often and easily between English and Hungarian). On campus, she sits in the front row in the lecture hall, and she does what she is ordered to do on Rounds with brusque efficiency. (For example, tell a startled young woman with two young children that her husband has just died.)
Mary’s problem is that she’s perpetually cash-short, and creditors are losing patience with her. When the phone company threatens to cut-off her service (which would interrupt her precious connection with her grandmother), Mary looks through the newspaper until she locates something that might do. Her pick is odd for a medical student, but it seems she’s traveled this road before, using her beauty to get right up to the edge of danger, then using her brains to stay on the right side of it.
And this is how Mary just happens to find herself at a seedy strip club, on a job interview with manager “Billy Barker” (Antonio Cupo), when a troublemaker gets beaten to a pulp, at which point Billy offers Mary a small fortune to stitch him back up. All her practice has made perfect and Mary’s reputation quickly spreads like wildfire in the netherworld. Soon she is receiving calls from someone named “Beatress” (Tristan Risk) who says she’s calling on behalf of her friend “Ruby” (Paula Lindberg). Mary tries to keep her distance but Beatress refuses to take no for an answer, and once again Mary is handsomely reimbursed for doing things she knows she shouldn’t do… Or should she?
The Soska Sisters are actually addressing some fascinating questions about body image, plastic surgery, and medical ethics, not to mention gender roles and the multiple ways women respond to male domination. So even when American Mary got really gory, it still had my full attention.
Katharine Isabelle has a hypnotic charisma. She is a gorgeous woman who presents herself as intelligent, experienced, and very self-possessed. At one point Mary is drugged and abused, and once it is over, she is determined to have her revenge. But she doesn’t rush into it. She is as cool and methodical as a good surgeon should be, and that makes her subsequent behavior both riveting and bone-chilling. What enrages Mary is not just her physical suffering during and after the attack, but the fact that someone stripped away her much prized self-control in public, while other men not only knew what was happened, but cheered the perp on.
The phone calls with her grandmother provide good counterpoint. Demonstrating that Mary has a soft-side helps audience members believe that she feels genuine empathy for Beatress, Ruby, and some of her other patients. When the calls stop, Mary loses her last anchor on what the conventionally-minded among us assume to “normal” life.
On the other hand, the production values in American Mary are awful. All the sets feel so flimsy that one puff from a big bad wolf would blow the whole house down. I am sure the Soska Sisters were working with really big budget constraints, but even so, it’s impossible to “suspend disbelief” when nothing on the screen looks the least bit “real.”
And most of the male actors are truly terrible even though some of them like David Lovgren (who plays Mary’s mentor “Dr. Grant”) and John Emmet Tracy (who plays the police investigator “Detective Dolor”) have long lists of acting credits on IMDb. Somewhere there was a failure to communicate: either the Soska Sisters don’t know how to direct male actors, or the male actors simply refused to play the hands they were dealt. Either way, none of the male characters in American Mary survive the mayhem regardless of whether or not they’re actually killed off in the process.
So the next time the Soska Sisters make a film, I will be in the audience again hoping for the best, but this time around, I give you my permission to take a pass.
Top Photo: On the phone with grandmother.
Bottom Photo: In the surgical suite.
Photo Credits: Nick Curtis/XLrator Media
PS: Where does the title come from? I haven’t found a discussion of this anywhere, but I assume American Mary is a riff on American Psycho (written & directed by Mary Harron based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis). Released in 2000, American Psycho is the story of an extremely handsome and very narcissistic investment banker who becomes a serial killer. (FYI, he mostly murders women, but he also knocks off a few men.)
American Psycho helped make Christian Bale a star, and it received “Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking” from the National Board of Review. So if this is what the Soska Sisters aspired to—to make a Feminist version of American Psycho—then they failed… but there was certainly no harm in trying!