Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: American Mary (2013)

[This review discusses specific plot points and details, so if you don't want them spoiled, don't proceed.]

Plato once wrote (in The Phaedrus) that in life, things are not always as they seem, and that first appearances can deceive many people.

That’s the carefully-applied philosophy beating at the heart of American Mary (2013), a droll, carefully-constructed horror movie starring Katharine Isabelle and written/directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska.

In broad strokes, the film depicts the story of a talented, dedicated, and financially-strapped medical student, Mary (Isabelle) who travels, uncomfortably -- at least at first -- between the world of “reputable” surgeons and the world of “disreputable” body modification patients.  

Only -- as Mary finds out the hard way -- those exterior descriptions are worse than meaningless. They are actually inverted.

No one is as Mary expects them to be, and so, after being sexually victimized by the surgeons -- those whom society considers respectable -- she self-actualizes as “Bloody Mary,” an outlaw surgeon extraordinaire. Mary finds solace within the body mod community, which considers her a true artist.

After her rape, Mary literally casts-off the garb of students and doctors, and creates her own unique persona instead, one that allows her to take back meaningful ownership of her whole being.  She slices and dices her way to repair the breach the doctors have caused. That her tool is plastic surgery -- a discipline devoted to “correction” or “restoration” -- makes the film’s central conceit work even more efficiently.

Yet -- and this is one reason why the film proves so powerful -- Mary’s fearsome new demeanor and wardrobe also comes, finally, to isolate her from the rest of humanity.  At some point, Mary becomes so frightening a figure that others can’t relate to her. They shun her not out of disrespect or judgment, but out of outright fear.

Beyond presenting a sympathetic look at the body modification community -- a stance I haven’t seen deeply explored in other films -- American Mary thrives as a work of art by adhering strictly to its theme that society-at-large consists of men who are not what they seem to be. 

At least the body modification patients attempt to be true to who they really are inside. The same cannot be said for the surgeons who hide behind the sheen of respectability and professional accomplishment, but are, in fact, members in a grotesque and privileged “boys only” club.

It has been reported widely that American Mary serves as a metaphor of sorts for the Soskas’ experience in Hollywood dealing with male movie executives.  Apparently, this demographic wasn’t as trustworthy or professional as they ought to have been, either. The filmmakers thus sought refuge in horror film circles, and the corollary for that community, of course, is the body mod community in the film.  Both demographics are viewed, by outsiders, as being socially unacceptable or even freakish.  Yet these communities (in film and in life, respectively) often prove accepting and loving instead

American Mary is sharp, smart, and well-drawn, and every scene pulsates with a sense not only of life’s inequities, but how they can sometimes galvanize us to be better and stronger.  Remarkably, the film-- often riding on a tail-wind of justified rage – also manages to suggest, with moral conviction, that sometimes our drive never to again be a victim can, finally, isolate us from others.

“I’m changing specialties.”

Overwhelmed by bills, med-student Mary (Katharine Isabelle), applies for a job at a strip club. The owner, Billy (Antonio Cupo), however, sees her resume -- which lists her schooling -- and retains her services as a doctor to heal a client who has been beaten. Mary is paid five thousand dollars for her work.

A dancer at Billy’s bar, Beatrice (Tristan Risk) -- who has undergone fourteen surgeries so as to look like Betty Boop -- soon asks Mary to perform plastic surgery on a friend, Ruby (Paula Lindberg).  Ruby wishes to have her nipples and labia excised so she more closely resembles a sexless doll. Mary performs the surgery, and it goes well.  So well, that Ruby advertises it, and Mary gains a name in the body-mod community.

Meanwhile, Dr. Alan Grant (David Lovgren), Mary’s professor, invites Mary to a party just for surgeons.  Once there, Grant’s colleague drugs Mary, and Grant rapes her. 

When Mary wakes up, she undertakes revenge, performing surgery on Grant that involves amputation, genital modification, teeth filing, implants, and amputation.

Soon, Mary becomes a much-sought after surgeon in the body-mod community, even as police begin to search for the missing Dr. Alan Grant. 

At the same time, Ruby’s husband surfaces, upset at the changes she has made to her body, and seeks vengeance.

“You’re going to be a great slasher.”

American Mary is all about the grievous distance between appearance and reality, and every character in the film can be interpreted in regards to that gap, to one extent or another. 

Dr. Alan Grant, and Dr. Walsh, for example, both assume that they have power over Mary. They hold positions of power both in academia (as professors) and within the medical discipline she has chosen: surgery. 

They believe that this position of power and respect entitles them to do with as Mary they please, without asking for consent.  They assume her consent, in short, because they assume their control over her. They treat her like a prostitute, drugging and raping her.  They expect to pay no price for their crime.

By all standards, these men should be pillars of the community and paragons of virtue. They have attained the highest plateaus in their discipline, and yet they have attained all this power not to help others, but to wield it over those who possess less power. 

This perspective is revealed, though inadvertently, through Dr. Walsh’s comment to Mary that she will be a “great slasher.” 

This choice of words is a window into his soul.  It reveals how he sees his own work. He is not a healer, nor an artist…but rather…a ripper. He gets off on cutting into human flesh, not repairing it.

Grant is very much the same way. He sees something he wants in Mary, and he rips it away from her without thought to her wants.

By contrast, the body modification patients in the film are not in positions of authority. To outward appearances, they are, perhaps, freaks. 

Beatrice has reshaped her face and body to resemble Betty Boop. 

Another body mod patient, Ruby, seeks to de-sexualize herself, to surgically make herself resemble a doll. Specifically, she wants her nipples removed, and her labia minimized to mimic a Barbie’s appearance. 

These decisions may not be considered mainstream, but there are at least two points worth considering, in terms of the film’s artistic argument.

The first is that Beatrice and Ruby seek opposite poles, but they are on the same continuum.

Beatrice seeks to become ultra-sexual through the ideal of Betty Boop, and Ruby seeks to become a-sexual, through the removal of parts that tag her as female.  Both these changes involve sex, however, either heightening sex appeal or lessening it. 

Regardless of the direction -- Betty Boop or Barbie – the surgeries represent the women asserting control over their own sexual identities.

The second point is that Beatrice and Ruby do not seem under duress when they make these surgical alterations. Rather, they both verbally define the changes as “aligning” with the qualities they already feel inside.  They feel that these outward changes are self-actualizing, bringing into alignment their inner and outer selves.

So, where men like Grant and Walsh prey on women by fostering the distance between their appearance (respected members of the community) and their actions (as rapists), the women in the film seek to minimize that same distance.

Importantly, the surgery Mary performs on Grant minimizes that distance. She gives him a forked tongue, like a devil, and cuts off his arms so he can never hold down another woman again.

Importantly, Ruby diagrams the nature of her modifications on Grant and states that she has “fourteen hours of surgery ahead” of her.  I believe this number is not coincidental, as Beatrice has already noted that she had “fourteen” particular body mod surgeries.  Thus the film is making a specific parallel between these the characters’ surgeries…both are self-actualizing, if not voluntary, at least in Grant’s case.

I have read some material online that indicates the film is “anti-man” for its depiction of Grant and Walsh, but it isn’t. There are actually at least three likable men in the film, a police detective, a bodyguard, and Billy, the man who owns a “gentleman’s club.”

Billy is an interesting case, and another example of appearances not aligning directly with character.  He dresses like Tyler Durden from Fight Club (1999), and will beat a man to a pulp if he feels it necessary, and yet he is, actually, “the gentleman” of the gentleman’s club.  He treats Mary with respect and love, and they forge a friendship that goes beyond mere physical attraction. 

A big part of Billy feels he will never be worthy of Mary, a woman of extraordinary power, and so he resorts to seeking comfort (blow jobs) from other women…all while thinking of her.  But he is not like Grant or Walsh, willing to impose his desire upon Mary, whose consent is not known. 

Again, you don’t expect a guy who owns a strip club to be a sensitive, caring guy, but that’s precisely who Billy is. Society wants to tell us he should be a thug -- or an exploiter -- because of his profession and place of business. But American Mary’s lesson is the same as Plato’s. You can’t judge a person based on society’s definition of them.

On screen, American Mary belongs to Katharine Isabelle, a talent who delivers an intense, accomplished, career-making performance.  I was deeply afraid -- after seeing the posters -- that the intent of the filmmakers was to make a campy horror movie headlining a sex-kitten slasher, thus reinforcing all the worst qualities of the horror film genre.  Under the guise of being “feminist” American Mary, I feared, would only wallow in male fantasies about hot women in leather fetish garb and high stiletto heels.

Thankfully, my fear was unfounded.  I too had judged by an appearance, not by substance. Indeed, the film is consistent in terms of its rhetoric, and Isabelle brings life to Mary in a way that is layered, memorable, and ultimately heart-breaking.  We see her make the transition from struggling student, to rape victim, to “Bloody Mary” surgeon, and Isabelle is convincing in all those shifts. 

But importantly, the Soska sisters and Isabelle work within a moral framework or code.  One can debate the “justice” of Mary’s actions against Grant, her rapist.  Certainly, she is working outside the frame work of the law.  But it is indisputable that Mary’s murder of a security guard is unnecessary and wrong.  He is an innocent, and in killing him, Mary has crossed some of the distance to becoming like the male surgeon “slashers” she derides. 

After committing this act, Mary becomes increasingly disconnected from her emotions because the persona she has erected is artist, not murderer. 

Similarly, she chooses not to kill the police detective after he reminds her that she has been wronged.  Again, there’s a very strong sense that Mary is attempting to stitch together her own sense of useful morality, and is not always successful in doing so.

American Mary’s best moment, however, might involve its structural resolution.  All along, the movie focuses on Mary, and her pendulum swing from innocent to actualized, but then it delivers a gut-punch of a denouement. 

In the end, patriarchal society wins, and Mary loses, a victim of another man who wishes to control female sexuality. 

We had been lulled into believing that it was Mary’s journey that matters, but the film’s finale suggests that in modern America (hence the title), the house always wins.  The society of “reputable”-seeming but actually disreputable men always wins.

American Mary very loosely fits into the “rape and revenge” horror movie genre, not unlike I Spit on Your Grave (1978). 

In both films, the act of artistic creation is the very thing that helps to restore the victimized female to a position of strength.  In I Spit on Your Grave, rape victim Jennifer (Camille Keaton) begins putting the pieces of her novel back together again, and the healing process starts. 

In American Mary, Mary becomes the doctor she trained to be, and creates “art” out of the body mod clients who seek to re-shape their lives to align more closely with their ethos. 

This is an empowering mode of operation, and my biggest criticism about I Spit on Your Grave was simply that we didn’t have the chance to encounter Jennifer after her violent retribution and find out how she felt about it. 

Who was she when the violence was done?

To my delight, American Mary answers that question and reveals much about Mary after she has executed her vengeance against Dr. Grant. We see her struggle with her own actions before the violent finale, and make choices that are moral, such as sparing the detective.  She becomes a tragic figure because we want her to have a happy ending. We want her to leave town with Billy, and also leave her violent “practice” behind.

Indeed, there’s a case to be made here that Mary learned some of the wrong lessons from the men who wronged her.  They saw “great potential” in her, and told her that “no one is going to hold your hand through life.” 

What they didn’t tell her -- and which Mary was only starting to understand before her murder -- is that life is better when you do have someone to hold your hand.  Being strong isn’t about hurting others, but about choosing to connect with someone, perhaps someone like Billy.   

And as for potential, the Soskas and Isabelle have fully realized it themselves here, with the stellar, explosive American Mary.


  1. This is a great in-depth review. I'm watching this movie for the 6th or 7th time, and I was wondering if anyone else found Billy as sympathetic as I did. Clearly I'm not the only one.

    1. Thank you, Holly. I love this movie. And I agree with you that Billy is sympathetic. He's expected to be something less; a criminal or another abuser. He turns out to be a rather sensitive individual, in his own way.

    2. Thank you, Holly. I love this movie. And I agree with you that Billy is sympathetic. He's expected to be something less; a criminal or another abuser. He turns out to be a rather sensitive individual, in his own way.


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