Saturday 20 October 2012

Toronto After Dark 2012 - "American Mary"

I can't help but feel just a little bit dirty for admitting that I very much enjoyed American Mary - the latest film from Jen and Sylvia Soska (also known as The Twisted Twins). A bit surprised too. I was curious going in and hopeful that lead actress Katherine Isabelle (best known for Ginger Snaps) would provide some spark to a concept that didn't have much appeal to me, but I had expectations the film would be gory for gore's sake. So much for expectations...

Isabelle plays Mary Mason, a medical student struggling to make ends meet. She's one of the sharpest in her class and has the attention of the senior doctors (she even has the ability to provide bad news to patients' relatives in a quick, dispassionate way), but needs to find some additional income to keep up with tuition and living expenses. Looking for a quick chunk of cash, she answers an ad looking for women to give sexy massages and provides her resume to a seedy club manager. Their "interview" is broken up when he has to deal with an "issue": a beating gone a bit too far on a client who missed some payments. Knowing that Mary has a surgical background, he offers her money to fix the guy up. Wary, but not really as wary as maybe she should be, Mary accepts. That single "job" leads to one of the club's dancers coming to her for some elective surgery. This isn't your run of the mill cosmetic changes, though, and Mary once again treads where she likely shouldn't by becoming involved with body manipulation surgery.

As gruesome as that sounds, the film doesn't dwell on the gore. Not that it holds back on the explicit details of the cutting or other disturbing images, but it doesn't bathe gleefully in blood. The Soskas seem know when to pull back and when to dive in, so that the main focus is the character of Mary and her story. Those story elements, by the way, do a lot of shifting and twisting and provide sudden jogs to the left and right throughout (by the end, maybe one or two too many), so that you really never quite know where Mary's arc is headed. After suffering a terrible act at the hands of the doctors, she quits medical school and goes into body modification surgery on her own with help from the club's manager and his bodyguards. As unhealthy as all that sounds (which is all happening in tandem with an awful plan of revenge Mary has embarked on), Mary comes across as confident, powerful and - if not necessarily happy - comfortable in her own skin. As we meet many of her patients with a variety of "changes" made to their bodies (I'm pretty sure that all of these people are very real), we see that they too are comfortable within their newly altered skins. Be who you are and "let your freak flag fly" is definitely one of the messages that the film drives out.

Given her last name, you could've guessed that Mary would be effective at building her American Dream of making money doing what she's good at, but her ongoing revenge and difficulty at engaging in anything but an awkward relationship with the club manager may lead to her downfall. And despite some truly grisly things Mary does, you can't help but root for her to avoid that. Credit has to go to the Soskas for not limiting the route of Mary's story and for making the film look pretty damn fantastic, but it's all mostly due to a fantastic performance by Isabelle - someone who I've long thought deserved much wider recognition. But if she can power her way through genre work and raise it to this kind of level, that's fine by me. I'm confident that at this stage she can bring something extra to just about any role thrown her way. And that's an expectation I'm happy to keep.

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