The Gospel of American Mary – The Review

Here at Flickering Myth over the next five days we are in the words of the ‘Twisted Twins’ “Spreading the gospel of American Mary.” Along with our American Mary Blu-ray giveaway, we will be featuring interviews with American Mary herself Katherine Isabelle, ‘The Twisted Twins’ Jen and Sylvia Soska, whilst taking a moment to discuss American Mary’s generic ‘horror’ label, and the ‘Twisted Twins’ themselves speak out in a piece written exclusively for Flickering Myth. We ask only one thing of you in return: “Spread the gospel of American Mary…” 

American Mary, 2012.

Directed by Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska.
Starring Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Clay St. Thomas, Paula Lindberg, John Emmet Tracy and Twan Holliday.

American Mary UK DVD cover

SYNOPSIS:

Seeking work as a masseuse at a local strip club run by Billy (Antonio Cupo), cash strung medical student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) finds an unlikely answer to her cash flow problems.  Events take an unexpected turn as Mary realises the cold hard cash people will pay for her surgical skills, leading her into the subversive world of body modification.

American Mary

American Mary is perhaps more fittingly categorised as a psychological thriller as opposed to horror, despite its horrific elements, the latter having been bandied about since its festival run, merely serving as descriptive shorthand. American Mary is a complex psychological thriller, though inevitably influenced by body horror to include fellow compatriot David Cronenberg. If American Mary’s singular identity as a horror film is overshadowed by the fact that it just as much a psychological thriller. Like Powell’s 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom, American Mary is a horror in the shell of a psychological thriller.

It is the film that last year kicked the hornet’s nest, provoking ecstatic superlatives throughout its festival run, and whilst the directors are affectionately known as ‘The Twisted Twins’, they are ‘The Girls Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’, in the cinematic context of course.

A follow-up to their low budget exploitation debut feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk, American Mary marks a departure from gritty low budget cinema. American Mary is a decidedly more polished feature from start to finish. Remembering the adage of the importance of first impressions, the beautiful, gentle and moving sound of ‘Ave Maria’ to accompany Mary Mason’s silent introduction creates an immediate positive first impression. However, that said, such an impression can never be considered a fleeting moment in what is a definite departure from low budget filmmaking.

An on-going point of interest following DHIAT’s use of Bizet’s ‘Carmen Suite No.2 – Habanera’ to accompany the brutal murder of a hooker, is the employment of both Schubert and Bach’s renditions of ‘Ave Maria’, which is used not merely for effect, but to emphasise Mary’s innocence and her tragic journey as she compromises her soul for wealth, ambition and her attempts to attain her own personal ‘American Dream.’
Stories should be a journey for both the narrative’s protagonist and their audience, punctuated with a denouement that signals the change in the protagonist from the point of their introduction to the time of their departure. Mary Mason’s story arch is expertly constructed, in a state of perpetual motion, continually evolving, progressing (or regressing depending on your opinion), within the template of a fairy tale, Mason metamorphosing from a character of naïve innocence, to the wronged and vengeful woman who spirals into the darkness.

With a deft hand the film explores complex themes amidst an entertaining movie narrative. The story is in one sense about the loss of innocence and challenging the belief that people don’t change. As we share in her denouement, Mary becomes an agent of Jung’s psychology, of the first and second personality, suggesting that to be human is to find oneself in a constant internal/psychological tug of war. If this is so then it is subtle, the directors presence on shaping the character absent, and Isabelle bringing a natural and instinctive quality to her performance, perfectly walking the line between her two selves.

Mary is one of cinema’s victims, a woman who chooses fight over flight, and if she is monstrous in moments, it stems from how she is perceived and treated by those around her. If she is evil, which I do not believe she is, then she is a form of evil that is created and not born. Mary is a meditation of the way in which we are shaped by our surroundings and our impulsive and rational emotions. She is perhaps a perfect companion femme fatale to Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction. Whilst Gregory’s prologue is more ambiguous, both women have a cruel streak, and both are possibly shaped by the world, understood to differing degrees by ambiguity or lack of. This is the fascinating conundrum of Mary, and Isabelle expertly portrays Mary’s complexity and evolution in a breakout performance.

American Mary is a thoughtful and intelligent film, and one that does not have a singular interpretation. It can be viewed as a critique of the American Dream, and the personal sacrifice to achieve this dream. It could just as easily be read upon as a modern retelling of the Greek Myths, the tragic and intertwined relationships between the God’s transposed as surgeons, and mortal man, to the reading of the film as a postmodern fairy tale.

Original and thought provoking, American Mary provides a glimpse into the world of body modification that to most of us is alien; a world that has no reason to be thought of as subversive or its inhabitants demonised. This is the potential of cinema, of art, to simultaneously entertain and inform, and to challenge our pre-conceptions.

Not since the initial promise exhibited by directors Sam Mendes, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Alexander Payne and Christopher Nolan have I felt the need for such anticipation, but the ‘Twisted Twins’ along with another promising young director Duncan Jones gives cause for excitement. 

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Paul Risker is a freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth, Scream The Horror Magazine and The London Film Review.