Canada. 103 minutes. Directed by Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska, 2012. Starring Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Paula Lindberg.

Mary Mason is an aspiring surgeon working her way through med school…and struggling to pay her bills. Her life takes a strange turn when she goes to a strip club with the intention of auditioning–but instead, she ends up using her skills to save the life of an associate of the owner and goes home with $5000. Word-of-mouth spreads, and soon Mary’s new career as an unlicensed, underground surgeon with a specialty in body modification is lucrative enough to allow her to quit med school–and pursue revenge against Dr. Grant, the professor who drugged and raped her.

I want to like American Mary, I really do. A lot of what I’ve seen this year has whetted my appetite for surgical body horror with a side order of transgression, a bill Mary fits to a T. Sadly, while the “twisted twins” behind Mary–writer/director/producer/stars Jen and Sylvia Soska–have a lot of great ideas, they don’t have a lot of focus, and the end result is a film that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going and probably doesn’t care much, either.

There are a lot of various plot threads here, and it’s very rare that any of them gel together to form a cohesive whole. There’s some great stuff here: the stories of the stripper Beatress (who’s had plastic surgery to make her look like Betty Boop) and her friend Ruby Realgirl, who pays Mary to remove her nipples and labia with the intention of becoming a sort of human Barbie doll, are rich enough to support a film on their own. Unfortunately the Soskas forget about these characters for what seems like the better parts of two acts, pursuing the revenge subplot (which isn’t as strong, but is at least plenty wince-inducing) or introducing us to a progressively stranger series of clients (including twin sisters, played by the Soskas themselves, who trade arms; and a young man who has his penis turned into…I’m not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be, but it’s ruined my ability to sleep nights).

None of these subplots do much to link up with each other, which I could forgive if it seemed like they had anything to do with each other thematically, but they don’t really do that, either. At least, not as far as I can tell. The overall effect is like listening to someone ramble on and on without much of a point in mind, until they run out of things to say, which is pretty much how the film’s end happens as well.

The title character is played by Katharine Isabelle, she of the Ginger Snaps series, and I gotta admit that I’m very disappointed with her performance. Not with the fact that she comes very close to performing a pole dance, or indeed with the rubber and leather fetish gear she wears throughout the film. (She’s a much better brunette than a redhead, BTW.) But she seems stuck in a permanent sex-kitten mode, even when it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate–watch the early scene where she crosses and uncrosses her legs in a classroom, and try not to think of Basic Instinct. I dare you, I double-dare you.

But then again, I probably would have had a hard time buying the character of Mary anyway. The production design is very stylish, which should count in its favor, but a lot of the time it tells a different story than the dialogue is: Mary is exceptionally stylishly-dressed for someone who’s supposed to be a poor med student, and her apartment is swankier than mine.

And on top of that, Mary simply isn’t as interesting as the Soskas believe her to be. Or maybe they simply can’t make her all that interesting, a problem Ruby and Beatress also suffer from. (actress Tristan Risk is responsible for 90% of the heavy lifting in the latter case). Weirdly enough, it’s the mundies–Mary’s hefty bodyguard, for example, or the owner of the stripclub–who are more engaging than the weirdos. When it comes to the twins, or penis-boy, or the Bret Easton Ellis-esque “cult” of decadent surgeons, the Soskas simiply seem like they’re trying to hard.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t pleasures to be had here: there’s transgression to spare, some beautiful bloody sequences, several wonderful performances (including David Lovgren as Dr. Grant), some fantastic music and Ms. Isabelle in her lingerie. But in the end, American Mary seems to be little more than an exercise in style over substance. Which, considering the subject matter, might not be an irony.


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