American Mary Review: Illegal Surgery for Fun and Profit
American Mary is the second film from the brilliant Soska Sisters, Jen and Sylvia. Their first film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, was a huge success made on a very low budget.
Katherine Isabel plays Mary, a surgical student who’s running out of cash while trying to finish school. She’s got a Nana who wants to help her out, but she’s determined to manage her financial crisis on her own. Mary is a very talented surgical student, but as a person she’s isolated from others; her only connections in the world are her pet bird and her Nana.
Desperation drives her to interview at a strip club for a job as a massage girl (no sex involved, or so says the ad). The club owner, Billy, likes her enough to offer her a job, but it’s her surgical skills that he eventually utilizes, not her body. He offers her five thousand dollars to sow up a severely wounded criminal who needs to stay alive for at least a little longer. Once she does finish saving him, her career in illegal surgery begins.
Mary’s not a warm character, but neither is she a heartless monster. She definitely seems more at home practicing her suturing technique on poultry (ironically under the watchful eye of her pet bird), and her first medical act on a living person leaves her bloody and shaken.
It’s something that she gets over quickly, as her next surgical act nets her more money but also is more extreme. The surgery is where she meets her new (and unwanted) bestfriend, Beatress, who’s had procedures done to make her look like Betty Boop. While it worked to some extent, trying to resemble a cartoon character is unlikely to succeed, so she looks strange at best and bizarre at worst. Still, despite her odd appearance and Boop-like voice, she’s not a bad person. And while the doll-like patient Ruby Realgirl is just as strange looking as Beatress, she’s not a monster either. American Mary doesn’t use the appearances of these women as an opportunity for shock or derision. In fact, despite their odd visages and eccentric behavior, they’re substantially less isolated than Mary and accepted in their own communities while she remains an outsider.
It’s not the people who look strange that Mary needs to fear; the ones who do her the most harm look just like everyone else. She gets invited to a party thrown by the surgeons in the hospital where she’s doing her residency. While she thinks it’s going to be a normal affair, it doesn’t turn out so well for her. She’s drugged and raped, which causes her to drop out of medical school and take up the unlicensed surgeon’s role full time.
Mary becomes a powerful figure in the body mod community because she’s willing to perform surgeries normally shunned by licensed professionals and for the right price she can do whatever the patient desires. She uses her newfound position to take revenge on her rapist in a particularly gruesome fashion and also performs a surgery for the Soska Sisters in their cameo.
While there are plenty of horrific images in American Mary, the film isn’t in the torture porn category by any means, not only because most of the patients want the procedures, but also because most of the surgical procedures aren’t on full display. The Soska Sisters know when to show the audience something and when to cut away. The audience gets enough of a view to see what the procedure entails, and the rest is left up to their imagination. The sounds of a blade slicing through flesh is far more effective in a lot of the scenes than watching Mary cut through a prosthetic.
Mary’s world eventually comes crashing down in a way that’s logical but heartrending all the same, and while the rape is traumatic and definitely contributes to her downfall, I think one other event that occurs is what really breaks her. While I found it hard to see her as a monstrous figure even when you see the full extent of her revenge on her rapist, the characters in American Mary are almost all scared shitless of her. This contributes to her isolation, but it also makes for some interesting daydreaming on the part of Billy. He’s the one who most wants to make a connection with her, but by the time he’s ready to make a real move Mary’s passed beyond the point where she can even consider his offer.
The end is bleak, and while I didn’t hate it, I wasn’t completely convinced it should’ve gone down the way it did. Despite her clinical coolness and monstrous acts I wanted her story to have a happy ending.