In one of the most blazingly original thrillers in recent memory, American Mary from Vancouver horror directors and identical twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, the art of character based horror gets a much needed modification. Not only a strongly made and incredibly well crafted female made horror film, but also featuring one of the strongest female antiheroes the genre has ever had. Intense and squirm inducing, but also thoughtful and keenly witty, there simply hasn’t been a film of this calibre that’s been this interesting in quite some time. It’s disarming and flooring how great it is.
Financially struggling medical student Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle) nearly turns to exotic dancing in a sleazy club to make ends meet. Fate steps in and her surgical training leads to her getting a one off gig as a backroom doctor for a criminal type, which leads to her getting noticed by a dancer keen on sometimes dangerous body modification. Rightfully disillusioned by how she’s treated by her instructors, Mary parlays her skills into a new and lucrative career, but it’s one that comes with a deep psychological toll and criminal implications.
It’s hard to describe American Mary without entirely spoiling it. There aren’t any huge plot twists or even particularly grotesque set pieces to spoil persay, but there’s a whole lot of rich character development that’s better to experience rather than explain. It’s rare to see a main character in such a film as this have a fully realized arc, especially with a female lead. Mary, thanks to Isabelle’s deeply estimable performance, starts off sympathetic and it’s one that’s sustained as her character goes down a decidedly darker path. It’s a deft balancing act that the Soskas pull off splendidly.
Mary comes into her own in her profession before the film’s true inciting incident approximately 40 minutes into the film. It’s an uncomfortable tipping point that turns the entire structure of the story on its head. It becomes more psychologically interesting to think about and it becomes apparent that the Soskas aren’t aiming so much to shock as they are trying to use shocking moments in service of a story. It’s a slow burn as far as these films go, but there isn’t a single superfluous moment in the film that doesn’t add depth to their title character or the journey she’s on.
There’s definitely a decidedly distinct body horror element simply because of Mary’s work, but not only is it not as disgustingly gory as one might expect, the her job is merely a backdrop for the character to develop within. Mary’s life gets pretty hellish both from within and without, but it’s not hell because her job takes its toll on her. It’s hell because her life is simply that messed up. Her problems start mundane and relatable to everyone, then escalating to our worst potential fears, and then to a story of someone trying to overcome her fears and turn them into a newfound confidence that’s both appealing and misguided in equal amount. Again, a whole larger piece can be written about the film’s sexual politics and specific plot elements, but until more people see the film it’s best to keep some of the elements under wraps. It works best if you go in completely cold.
Sure, there are a couple of brief moments that aren’t perfect fits. The crush Mary’s closest confidant (Antonio Cupo, as the club owner who starts her on her path) doesn’t really add a heck of a whole lot, and the film ends on a note that’s foreshadowed and decidedly quieter than one would probably expect. Either way, there’s no denying the power and originality of what the Soskas have created, making a huge step up from their debut feature, the decidedly more jokey Dead Hooker in a Trunk. It establishes them as true forces to be reckoned with in the horror world and two of the most exciting female directors working today. It’s certainly not for everyone. It might be too much to take for those not on the film’s wavelength and there might be too much going on for gorehounds to embrace it entirely, but that honestly makes the whole thing even better.