It’s no secret that college kids have to struggle to get by. Between buying textbooks, meals, rent, and balancing their studies with a part-time job, it’s astonishing that more students don’t completely lose their minds out of pure exhaustion or frustration. As we have seen and heard before: desperate times call for desperate measures. However, what are you willing to do to reach financial success?
American Mary, the new film from the Canadian indie darlings the Soska Sisters (Dead Hooker in a Trunk), introduces us to our title character who is approaching the edge herself. Mary (Katharine Isabelle) struggles to make ends meet as she is balancing the demands of medical school while being stretched thin financially due to a sick family member and the high cost of education these days; a theme that seems far too common in today’s economy. To earn a little cash under the table, Mary decides to try her luck working at a bar/nightclub. Little does she know that when she interviews for the position that she would be cutting into some flesh rather than exposing it herself. Mary soon becomes drawn into a web of underground surgeries and alternative body modification. It’s all too obvious that her meetings with her professors – both in and outside of the classroom – did not prepare her for this dark path.
American Mary is a sleazy and sexy fetish film that knows how to pierce the hearts of gore hounds. Skin is exposed in both seductive and savage ways. Unlike how a typical Hollywood film might portray this narrative, the Soska Sisters don’t settle for a safe journey into the world of medicine and choose to instead shine a light on a subject that many have a hard time understanding: body modification. We watch as Mary, played perfectly by Katharine Isabelle, indulges the needs of her paying customers who need more than just a few stitches. So as not to disclose all the gory shocks in store, I will simply say limbs and body parts are removed and sometimes shifted like puzzles pieces or a Rubik’s Cube.
Clothed in tight slinky dresses or lingerie under a black latex apron – not to mention I don’t think there is a single shot where she’s not wearing high heels – Katharine Isabelle makes it hard not to be completely fixated on her. Yes, she’s easy on the eyes, but she also brings a human charm to the role and delivers some lines perfectly even if they aren’t all that clever to begin with. She owns the role and creates an identifiable character much like how she previously did in the underground gem Ginger Snaps. As a man, I can’t help but wonder though that if a male director and writer would have included some of the same sequences on display here or have the character wear the same outfits, would some critics not call foul for attempting to tell a redemptive tale of power and revenge that may instead feel a little misogynistic.
The Soska Sisters are still sharpening their teeth with this second feature and it’s mostly apparent by the script which is a bit unfocused. It includes several unnecessary side stories and characters and has a hard time structuring them in a fashion where you’re completely satisfied by the result of them all. Mary’s conclusion is fulfilling and justified but the reasons behind it come way out of nowhere. I guess one can argue that it is just an extension of the character’s journey into hell. Ignoring their writing, what the sisters do have is an eye for beautiful and disturbing visuals that is enhanced even more by Brian Pearson’s cinematography. American Mary aims to entertain rather than provoke. If you approach the film on a purely superficial level – like how many of the “different” characters seen in the film are judged by society – you will be in shock and awe at the beauty of the grotesque.