Review first published by Little White Lies
American Mary opens with fragmented images of a turkey. If this is a selfconscious expression of anxiety from writers/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska – whose amiably grindhouse-aping debut Dead Hooker In A Trunk might easily have been overlooked for plucking and stuffing – the twin sisters can put their worries to rest. For American Mary, though similarly transgressive in spirit, is miles ahead in quality and craft.
The turkey is also an iconic symbol of America’s foundational values – although here, the bird is not being sliced up for a Thanksgiving dinner, but stitched back together into an avian Frankenstein’s monster. Likewise the Soskas are taking a knife to the corpus of American myths and perversely modifying the severed parts into a wholly new kind of cinematic creature. American Mary may be very entertaining, but it also leaves viewers with plenty to dissect, right from the first word of its provocative title.
The person reconstituting said turkey is Mary Mason (the astonishing Katharine Isabelle), a medical student in Aberdeen, Washington, who is practicing her surgical skills at home. In many ways, Mary embodies the American dream, warts and all: on the one hand she is hard-working, ambitious, talented and naturalised (her family comes from Budapest); while on the other she is debt-ridden and entering a male-dominated professional world that regards her as a plaything for abuse and exploitation.
Unable to pay her mounting bills, she turns to the seedy Bourbon-A-Go-Go to get work as a stripper. But seeing her résumé, club owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) instead offers her a one-off, cash-in-hand gig to perform some illegal surgery down in the basement. Soon Bourbon-A-Go-Go dancer and surgically enhanced Betty Boop look-alike Beatress (Tristan Risk) is introducing Mary to Ruby RealGirl (Paula Lindberg), a wealthy fashion designer who desires “an unconventional operation… for cosmetic purposes.”
And so Mary discovers the murky community of extreme body modification fanatics. Horrifically objectified and betrayed by her more ‘respectable’ medical fraternity, Mary begins, not unlike the Soskas themselves, to carve a niche for herself in an alternative, underground movement that gradually allows her to achieve independence. Mary is on a strange, twisted journey, reinventing herself and reconfiguring others.
Her very elusiveness as a character, expertly modulated by Isabelle, is reflected in the film’s chimerical form, lopping off the extremities from romance, revenger’s tragedy, body horror and road movie and stitching them all back together into a feminist rite of passage and a satirical surgical strike against the American dream. And here, as in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), ‘normal’ society is shown in a rather dim light from the perspective of the sideshow attractions.