Written and directed by Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska
Do you know the feeling when you wash your hands with a bar of soap? How it makes your hands tensile, coarse, and uncomfortably dry? How it makes you squirm, uneasy, and perpetually unsettled? Like they were being constrained and sucked through your palms? Well, imagine if that feeling resonated throughout your entire body, multiply that by the biggest number you can think of, and you’ve only begun to understand what it’s like to watch Jen and Sylvia Soska’s surgical body horror movie American Mary. The British have a propensity to call the operating room the ‘operating theatre’, and after watching American Mary, you’ll get a keen sense of why.
The film stars Katharine Isabelle as Mary Mason, a medical student with a strong desire to become a surgeon. Loaded with student debt, she answers an online wanted ad for quick cash, which leads her to some kind of burlesque cabaret. Originally propositioned by the owner, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo), to become a dancer, she proves her worth when her medical (or, more specifically, surgical) prowess is needed. Afterwards, Mary comes into encounter with Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk), one of the dancers at the club and a surgically created visage of Betty Boop (think the Real Life Barbie). Beatress offers Mary a chance to cash in on the lucrative world of underground surgery and body modification, which can go for ten grand a pop. Initially hesitant, Mary succumbs to financial necessity, but as she does so, she finds her life irrevocably changed. If you haven’t seen the film, then this review ends here because you’re heading into spoiler territory (you’ve been warned). But in a word, it’s grotesque.
At a cocktail party thrown by her brusque professor, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), Mary is drugged and raped. When she comes to and realizes what happened, Mary, with the help of Billy, enacts a plan of revenge that includes cruel, horrific, and unusual punishment. Afterwards, she drops out of medical school and pursues the underground body modification route full time. Essentially, this rape-revenge narrative is supposed to represent Mary’s disillusionment and rejection of the societal standards and expectations pushed onto her by smarmy, elitist pigs like Dr. Grant (i.e. she was being screwed). Consequently, Mary sets up her own practice, one that the movie rationalizes as crucial for the misunderstood and the marginalized, which is fair enough; the mainstream media has a tendency to treat the bod mod crowd with contempt or condescension (remember that episode of South Park, where Kyle’s father wanted to become a dolphin, or the recent Bagel Head phenomenon?). This two-pronged incorporation of the American Dream and American Beauty is probably where the movie gets its name.
But is it worth it? Is it justified? Roger Ebert once wrote about the rape-revenge story arc and how it often creates a false equivalency – this no more apparent than in American Mary. Yes, she got raped, everyone realizes the gravity of this indignity, but is what she did comparable or commendable as a form of justice? To answer that, all we need to do is put the roles and sequence of events in reverse. If, for the sake of argument, it was Mary who strapped down Dr. Grant, split his tongue, filed down his teeth, stitched his mouth shut, cut off his limbs, hung him up on hooks by his skin, and kept him in a warehouse, does Dr. Grant, in turn, have the authority or permission to get revenge on Mary by raping her? The answer is a definite ‘no’. They are both abhorrent acts that don’t nullify each other.
A person that goes as far as Mary does is not a vigilante, but a sadist using ‘vigilante’ as an excuse. Yet, we’re expected to cheer for Mary because she’s empowered and emancipated from the world that Dr. Grant represents and embodies. The movie uses rape as a catalyst for her to torture him and a conduit to have her perform lurid surgeries, which is supposed to delightfully disgust the audience while also adding a red herring ethical dimension. This is an affront to decent, moral thinking.
Although Ms. Isabelle plays her with some endearing quirk, Mary really is a demented, sadistic person. No amount of pulpy sexual imagery, classical music, or surgeon humour can alleviate the dark aura that surrounds her. Her actions are reprehensible and immoral, not amoral or driven by destitution (as we thought in the beginning), a fact that even the filmmakers realize; made evident by the hasty, uncalled for, and altogether unearned conclusion to her story. At one point, Mary asks Billy whether or not he thinks she’s crazy. What he thinks is ultimately irrelevant, but how the audience member answers tells more about his or her character than about Mary’s.
– Justin Li
The 7th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs from October 18-26. For a complete schedule and ticket information, please visit the offical website.