Cut-throat Economy, by James T. Sheridan
From its first shot, a close-up of a scalpel slicing into skin, American Mary, by writer-director twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska, offers an upsetting and artistic look at surgeon-turned-body-modification-wunderkind Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), who journeys from medical school to the criminal underworld in pursuit of… Well, I am not sure what she is pursuing. It could be money. It could be a sense of purpose in life. It could be a sense of power over those who wronged her. The vagueness of Mary’s character derails the film (she starts off sympathetic and then transforms into something quite monstrous), though it is told with great panache. We meet Mary as a struggling surgeon of promise forced to seek alternative ways to pay her bills. An audition at a strip club turns into a $5,000 offer to do emergency surgery. A loner whose only family connection is the voice of an unseen Nana on her cell phone, Mary draws the attention of her fellow surgeons as well, leading to a horrific night that changes everything and leads her down a dark path.
From body modification to graphic websites, from vicious attacks to dream sequences in strip clubs, the Soskas throw quite a bit at the audience, and they are to be admired for their verve. When the German twins (played by the Soskas) show up mid-film with an outrageous request, the film does not skip a beat. For a story with quite intense subject matter, the Soskas prove to be quite restrained at moments, offering shots of drawings of violence in a textbook instead of the gore itself, and they often let the imagination supply the horror. Brian Pearson’s camera seeks out reflective surfaces to explore Mary’s duality while zooming in slowly in elevators and Mary’s dark-red apartment. I could not tell where the film was going most of the time, and the meandering tone ends in an abrupt shift in the last ten minutes that did not feel satisfying or earned.
So, although I admire much about how the film is crafted as well as the committed lead performance by Isabelle as the jaded and detached Mary, I do not think that I would watch American Mary again. The sadistic subject matter and jarring music are effectively upsetting. The subplot with the strip club owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) was funny in moments but never paid off. The ending frankly does not work for me. However, overall the camera moves confidently and with control; these directors have a clear vision and execute it for this disturbing tale. Be warned: they earn the film’s hard R rating.
Last, I am not sure about the title. American Mary seems to evoke American Psycho, a far superior and far more disturbing film. Is the title a commentary on the economy and the desperation that drive people to compromise their values? What would a person do to become debt free? The film suggests that a person will always have debt and risk, no matter what. The idea of a surgeon as a slasher has promise, and I have no doubt that American Mary will find its audience with Katharine Isabelle’s no-nonsense lead performance, complete with iconic black apron, high heels, and shiny surgical implements.