Saturday 2 March 2013

American Mary

Rocks ‘n’ Modders

American Mary
2012 Canada
Directed by Jen Soska & Sylvia Soska
Universal Blu Ray Region B

Okay, so American Mary is a second feature both written and directed by The Soska Sisters after their fairly well received opening feature Dead Hooker In A Trunk (which I confess to not having seen myself, I’m afraid). I was kind of looking forward to this because I figured something set against a backdrop of the body modification community would probably start to get vaguely surreal and, possibly, if they decided to shy away from the sense of fun which I’m sure must exist in this kind of human landscape-changing pastime, maybe even a little disturbing. Alas, I can’t quite give this one a full thumbs up (or even a full thumbs off) because it kind of left me disengaged from the action on screen to the extent that I was wondering when the movie was going to go into more grotesque or edgy territory... which turned out to be never.

On the other hand, the plus side is that it’s incredibly well directed, well performed by all the key actors and looks fantastic on a visual level. So there’s that.

The titular character (although I’ve no idea why they decided to throw the word American in there) is Mary Mason, played by Katharine Isabelle, who ensured her status as a horror film genre favourite in the role of Ginger in the Ginger Snaps movies... however, if you’re looking for a horror movie in American Mary, then I’m afraid you are going to be out of luck. It maybe bears a resemblance to the American slasher movies which were themselves inspired by the Italian giallo films of the sixties and seventies, but even so, it’s a mild slasher at best if you’re coming at it from that angle.

Isabelle’s performance is strong but, from what I’ve read from a couple of lines in a couple of reviews on the IMDB, somewhat misunderstood and under appreciated. It might be something to do with the fact that we don’t share the full horror that Mary undergoes near the start and which flips a little light out in her head.

Mary, you see, is a genius of a surgery student who is having trouble keeping her apartment running and paid for while she completes her course. After being in the wrong place at the right time, she uses her surgical skills on an unconventional job for the owner of a strip club and then all manner of body modification jobs come her way for big money. Meanwhile, she is drugged and raped at a “surgeon’s party” and that’s when the light in Mary’s head goes out and she leaves college and embraces the dark surgery she is good at... starting with a less than pleasant and ongoing revenge on her ex-tutor who raped her.

Isabelle plays the part from hereon in as a person who is just numbed to everything that happens in her life... which is fine and it’s an acceptable and immensely watchable, enjoyable performance... but I think the directors could maybe have lent it a little more credibility to this acting choice by showing some brutal stuff happening to her rather than just the prelude to rape... yeah, I know, rape is an awful, evil thing... but if you shy away from it in the visuals (or even just panning off and letting the sound play out, maybe) then in movie terms, the character in this film maybe changes over into “desensitised Mary” just a little too quickly. Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about on that one... you can make up your own mind on that one by giving this movie a quick spin.

On the super-plus side, the movie looks fantastic with muted browns, contrasting blues (yeah, I know, it gets a little clichéd at times but the sisters pull it off so well) and vibrant reds, not least of which is the brilliant crimson slashes of blood which is strange because in a movie about modification surgery and a couple of stabbings... there’s really not much in the way of disturbing imagery in this film... nor nudity. The shot designs and nicely lazy way in which the camera caresses the sets as it strives to soak up the atmosphere is brilliant and reminded me a lot of a David Lynch film... and one of the reasons it did so is because the violence and gore is kept to an absolute minimum, enveloped by the exquisite and rich textures captured in the mise-en-scene.

An argument could be made that the writers/directors were going for a slow, constant landscape with just an occasional “moment” of friction in heavy contrast and, while that seems to work very well with directors like Bergman or Tarkovsky, to name but two, it doesn’t really work in this film because there is no great shocking imagery showcased here. Frankly, if you want to see the extremities of body modification (and worse) these days, you just go on the internet and see it for free... so maybe there was a sense of not needing to show it in this movie. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the context of the movie, you needed to see more of what was going on, I think, if... indeed... the intention was to take a dark look at the scene. I’m not a body modder myself but I’m guessing it’s a full on, fun and friendly community but if you wanted to make a dark movie set in this world, there would still have been plenty of scope to do that with a more, “in your face before you realise it”, kind of modus operandi. So I did feel let down on being privy to a fuller understanding of the culture behind the story here... but again, maybe that’s just me.

On the other hand, American Mary is a gorgeous looking piece of work and the film in recent memory I’d most liken it to, although that one itself did a much better job of highlighting its particular fetish of choice and threading it into a narrative structure, would be Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (reviewed here), which I thought was similarly pulled off with a certain amount of taste and style not unlike the slightly less slow-burn movie that is American Mary. 

At the end of the day, if you’re a fan of the well crafted, beautifully lit shot, then you’ll get something out of American Mary. If, on the other hand, you are expecting a movie packed with nudity, gore and strange grotesquery, then you might find yourself a little disappointed in this film. Or you might not. The DVD and Blu Ray editions are on sale now and you won’t have to lop off an arm to get them... at least unless you want to feel a little more connected to the visually elusive subject matter of the movie.

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