Made in Canada Review: American Mary (2012)

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Cast: Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk
Director: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
Country: Canada
Genre: Horror | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: American Mary opens in limited release on Friday, May 31st, and is now available on VOD

There’s ample opportunity, as much courtesy of the nature of the movie as of a line of dialogue, for Canadian twins and directorial duo Jen and Sylvia Soska to title their second feature Bloody Mary. But they do not, and the alternative choice is indicative of both a horror far removed from triteness and a film directly targeted at the contemporary issues affecting the United States. American Mary, appropriately, is a manic perversion of the American Dream, a gore-ridden and grimy vision of an ideal that’s as warped as one would expect, given its directors’ sobriquet: the Twisted Twins.

Ingeniously contextualising their ostensibly out-there story, the directors prove themselves with American Mary artists capable of remarkable relation to the social problems of today.

american_mary_2012_3The twisted telling comes by way of the eponymous Mary, an ambitious medical student with as much debt as potential, whose ill-timed strip club interview puts her in the wrong place at the wrong time when a basement torture session requires some medical aid. Her ensuing descent into the weird world of body modification, guided by a sculpted Betty Boop lookalike and a woman determined to attain the exterior sexual ambivalence of a doll, is the basis of the distorted mirrors the Soskas hold to the American experience. It’s significant that Mary’s sole familial connection appears to be to her Hungarian grandmother, an enforced parallel that ties the Depression-era immigrant narrative to the desperate students of today, and all they themselves stand for. Ingeniously contextualising their ostensibly out-there story, the directors prove themselves with American Mary artists capable of remarkable relation to the social problems of today.

Artists, come to mention it, is a crucial term with this movie: “She’s an artist” insists the tagline, aligning the film with Mary in her claim to her clients that she can help them show on the outside what they feel on the inside. Decidedly and determinedly gruesome though so much of the images herein may be, this is something in which the Soskas—who turn up for an extended, somewhat problematic, cameo—clearly believe, and the insider view of this subculture they bring is invaluable to the engrossing quality of the story. As too are their prominent visual talents, indoctrinating horror tropes to make palpable the seedier territories into which the plot treads, and employing strong atmospherics to immerse us in the story’s wildly varying but immaculately controlled tonal registers.

She, portrayed with utter command by a fiery Katharine Isabelle, is one of the year’s most formidable characters, defined in equal measure by her strengths and weaknesses. Some dreadful things befall Mary in the course of the film, but never is she purely victim to them.

american_mary_2012_4Of course, as the title so surely tells us, all this is just padding around Mary herself, the real core of the film. She, portrayed with utter command by a fiery Katharine Isabelle, is one of the year’s most formidable characters, defined in equal measure by her strengths and weaknesses. Some dreadful things befall Mary in the course of the film, but never is she purely victim to them. There’s a devastating sequence early in the film, played to perfection by Isabelle, that’s indicative of how the entire movie handles its protagonist: she is a fragile human for whom we can feel sorry, but who is by no means powerless, at no point robbed of her considerable power and agency. That’s reinforced in the Soskas’ shooting of her, often from a lower angle and always reflecting Audition’s Asami; even as she strips in her interview, baring herself to the male gaze, it is she who is in control of the situation. Deftly weaving from horror to humour and tension to thrills, the sole label to which American Mary wilfully commits is feminist, and it is seminal.

Perhaps it’s the hefty volume of blood and audacious use of language that’s seen the Soskas compared to Tarantino; complimentary though the intent might be, to do so is to do their ferocious originality a great disservice. American Mary could only have come from this pairing, and their unique perspective is the root of the movie’s tremendous power. Between Mary herself, and the respectively sexualised and desexualised idylls of the Betty Boop and doll women, the Twisted Twins have created a film that speaks loudly and quite, quite brilliantly to issues of modern femininity. It’s for the extent of this brilliance, for its importance and for its necessity, that the film can overcome the disappointing drawbacks into which it falls in its third act. Much like its protagonist, even as American Mary takes the wrong steps we can’t help but watch with admiration and awe, willing it to succeed. She may or may not, but there is no question that the movie does so wildly.

[notification type=”star”]80/100 ~ GREAT. American Mary speaks loudly and quite, quite brilliantly to issues of modern femininity.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.