Little white lies American Mary review
by Anton Bitel
American Mary opens with fragmented images of a turkey. If this is a self-conscious expression of anxiety from writers/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, whose amiably grindhouse-aping debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk might easily have been overlooked as pure turkey, the twin sisters can put their worries to rest. For American Mary, though similarly transgressive in spirit, is miles ahead in its quality and craft.
Of course, the turkey is also an iconic symbol of America’s foundational values – although here the bird is not in fact being sliced up for a Thanksgiving dinner, but stitched back together into an avian Frankenstein’s monster. Likewise the Soskas are taking a knife to the corpus of American myths, and perversely modifying the different severed parts into a wholly new kind of cinematic creature. American Mary may be very entertaining, but it also leaves viewers with plenty to dissect, right from the first word of its provocative title.
The person reconstituting the turkey is Mary Mason (the astonishing Katharine Isabelle), a medical student in Aberdeen, Washington, who is practising her surgical skills at home. In many ways Mary embodies the American dream, warts and all: on the one hand, she is hard-working, ambitious, talented and naturalised (her family comes from Budapest); while on the other she is debt-ridden, and entering a male-dominated professional world that regards her merely as a plaything for abuse and exploitation. Unable to pay her mounting bills, she turns to the seedy Bourbon-A-Go-Go to get work as a stripper – but seeing her résumé, club owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) instead offers her a one-off, cash-in-hand gig to perform some illegal surgery down in the basement.
Soon Bourbon-A-Go-Go dancer (and surgically enhanced Betty Boop lookalike) Beatress (Tristan Risk) is introducing Mary to Ruby RealGirl (Paula Lindberg), a wealthy fashion designer who desires “an unconventional operation… for cosmetic purposes” – and so Mary discovers the murky community of extreme body modification fanatics. Horrifically objectified and betrayed by her more ‘respectable’ medical fraternity, Mary begins, not unlike the Soskas themselves, to carve a niche for herself in an alternative, underground movement that gradually allows her to achieve independence.
When Mary cuts a deal with ‘the demon twins of Berlin’ (memorably played by the Soskas themselves), she makes her fortune but also seals her fate in what is a sort of Faustian pact, and the film takes on a decidedly Lynchian vibe. Mary metamorphoses visually into Laura Palmer (or is it her ‘twin’ Maddie Ferguson?), even as the dark, abusive underside of smalltown America is exposed – just like in Twin Peaks. Mary has realised her aspirations, but they come at a heavy price to her physical, mental and moral integrity – and some wounds may never heal.
“Surgeons don’t have the luxury of being sorry,” Mary is told by one of the teachers on her medical course. “You’re gonna be a great slasher!”, says another. Ever the good student, Mary absorbs their words – with a vengeance. If she is a somewhat schizophrenic character – a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde, split between the old-world, good-girl values of which the phone calls from her Hungarian ‘Nana’ are a regular reminder, and the coldly torturous vindictiveness that Mary will quickly embrace – that is only because she is learning the contradictory lessons of her environment, transforming (as actress Isabelle previously did in Ginger Snaps) into a monster of aggressive self-determination, even as she struggles to sew back up her eviscerated sense of identity.
Mary is on a strange, twisted journey, reinventing herself and reconfiguring others – and her very elusiveness as a character, expertly modulated by Isabelle, is reflected in the film’s chimerical form, lopping off the extremities from romance, revenger’s tragedy, body horror and road movie (or at least the itinerary from a road movie), and stitching them all back together into a feminist rite of passage and a satirically surgical strike against the American dream. And here, as in Tod Browning’s Freaks, ‘normal’ society is shown in a rather dim light from the perspective of the sideshow attractions.
American Mary is one of the very best films at this year’s FrightFest, and practically guaranteed a lasting cult status. It is not only one of the few scheduled films directed by women, but also a refreshingly original take on the genre. In other words, while no turkey, it certainly has wings. Cannot wait to see where the Soskas will take us next.