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American Mary (2012)

The Soska Sisters (Jen and Sylvia) are a sibling directorial team that gained some notoriety not solely on the basis of their films but also due in part to their orientation as twin sisters working in the horror genre. Their debut feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk garnered some general praise for its DIY attitude and its utilisation of a miniscule budget to great effect. The same could be said about their newest venture American Mary, which simultaneously occupies a space of micro-finance and independent production. Whilst this method of film making is highly desirable as a novel process of film production, it would be useless to allow the process of making the film to obscure the quality of the film itself, or at least the ability to criticise and comment on the output. American Mary is such a film; one in which the collective variables involved in the process of the films making seem to excuse the films glaring imbalances and inconsistencies in critical circles. The Soska Sisters should be commended for their efforts and ability to work outside the system, but to praise the film in light of that would hinder progress in this field, as American Mary is a confused, inconsistent and frustrating experience.

The film depicts a young woman named Mary Mason (performed surprisingly well by Katharine Isabelle) who is studying to be a surgeon. Although she is incredibly talented and knowing, she is confronted with student loans that she cannot pay and a lecturer (David Lovgren) who continues to threaten her position in the class due to her lack of attendance. She applies for an ad at a strip club and ends up becoming involved in an emergency surgical operation (after the club’s bouncers beat a man to near death) and she is given $5000 for performing the job. She is then approached by Beatress (Tristan Risk), a woman who has had body modification surgery to resemble Betty Boop and requests Mary’s work for her friend who wishes to resemble a doll in order to remove the sexual desire she feels is thrust upon her. From here on Mary becomes involved in an underground world of seedy surgeon sex parties and intense body modification surgery that becomes more distressing the further down the rabbit hole she falls. It’s a plot that seemingly maintains some potential with regards to its depiction of the little seen world it seems so fascinated with and the exploration of body modification culture. Unfortunately, American Mary pertains to neither, and loses any semblance of coherence or intrigue the further it delves into its ideas.

The film is mostly a confused and befuddled rumination on body modification sub-culture and the individuals experience within it. The world depicted a farce, far removed from any understanding of the actual operations that exist within it. It seems as though the Soska sisters have never attended a university or a surgery, as they have little to no conception of relationships and occurrences within them. Such elements are easily forgiven if the film’s intention is to utilise a heightened appropriation of these environments for dramatic effect or thematic concerns, but American Mary does neither. Mary is such a convoluted figure that the film struggles to maintain any locus of insight through her actions. She is constantly being posited as either the propagator of violence and vengeance or as a victim of violent acts, resulting in confusion of not only her position but also her use as a dramatic devise. She reveals nothing about the morality of the world beneath her as she is simultaneously within and without it with no attention even paid to the possibilities of this conflict. As well as this, the film is intensely confused about its attitudes towards body modification. Once again, the subculture is depicted as either being a personal expression of internal beauty (as witnessed by her embracing of the art form) and also a method of torture and disfigurement (her vengeance on one of the surgeons). The resurgence of body modification culture outside of tribal totemism is a fascinating subject, one which speaks to a modern disconnect between body and mind and the inference of technology in the equation. Never once does the film posit to explore the world with which it seems so fascinated but rather uses it in generic ways to either provoke violence or express superficial notions of the questioning of beauty and aesthetics.

The Soska Sisters obvious comparison is their Canadian counterpart David Cronenberg, whose body horror films of the 1980s and 90s are infamous in the genre. The sisters are obviously admirers of the director’s great works of this period, however they fail to engage with their subject matter in the same light and rather indulge in gruesome aesthetics. With Cronenberg’s films The Fly and Videodrome, he uses flesh and the decomposition of the body as a way of reappropriating otherness by turning the male body inside out and making it the focus of the fascinated gaze. Similarly (but more potently), in his film Dead Ringers body modification/dissection is used to communicate how technology obscures the fear of the site of the human body as an abject figure (specifically the female body). It’s a terrifying realisation, and one that the Soska Sisters have no comprehension of. Nor do they maintain the foresight to explore their ideas with such acumen and rather become a carbon copy of a Cronenberg aesthetic. Even the film’s aesthetics themselves are beyond displeasing, the images feeling as though they have become the victim of a body modification procedure themselves. Unsightly images/framing, poor editing and an inconsistent tone become as wildly erratic as the film’s contemplation of its subject matter. As the film continues down its path of mystification, it continues to frustrate and alienate the viewer in almost every fashion.American Mary might be commended for its efforts in self-production, but beyond its democratic artistic model what results is a generally unpleasant and surface level film.

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