(2012) dir. Soska Twins:
Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
The scalpel enters a full, fleshy breast and delicately, almost sensually circles the areola's entirety whilst blood oozes out, the surgeon's fingers gently tracing her handiwork.
Both nipples are eventually removed.
The next procedure involves surgically removing all physical receptors of pubic ecstasy and stitching shut the vagina of the aforementioned nipple-bereft body, save, of course, for the smallest allowable opening for the expulsion of urine.
The surgeon is spent, stunned, but satisfied - secure in the knowledge that her first stab (so to speak) at body modification is a success. The client eventually expresses sheer joy over her all-new sexually adhedonic state; how perfectly she's been able to fulfil her own personal essence of womanhood via the excision of those physical extremities which alternately offer enticement and pleasure. Whatever you say, babe. In the words of Marlo Thomas: "Free to be you and me."
Can movies possibly get any better than this?
Well yes, they most certainly can and do, but it doesn't change the fact that American Mary is a dazzlingly audacious sophomore effort from the Vancouver-based twisted twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska (who made a promising debut with their micro-budgeted 2009 effort Dead Hooker in a Trunk).
With this new picture, the sisters are on (at least for some, if not many) shaky moral ground (and/or crack), but happily, they maintain the courage of their convictions and do not tread lightly upon it. There are no half-measures here to even attempt making the picture palatable to the gatekeepers of political correctness (those purported knot-headed pseudo-lefty Great Pretenders who reside just to the right of Mussolini, Stevie Harper or Mitt Romney - take your pick). I'd even vigorously argue that non-fascist PC-types will, in fact, find the picture more than palatable. The rest of us will get it, groove on it and celebrate its excellence.
This movie is some mighty nasty stuff - replete with elements of slashing satire that hack away and eventually tear open "normally" accepted versions of right and wrong whilst grasping the exposed nerve endings of morality, holding them taught and playing the jangling buggers like violin strings. The picture will provoke, anger, disgust and scandalize a multitude of audiences, though chances are good that the most offended will be those "smugly fuckling" (phrase courtesy of the late, great CanLit genius Scott Symons) aforementioned poseurs who claim to be outside the mainstream, but have their noses deeper up the rectal canals of fascists than the bloody Tea Party.
Strange as this might seem, the picture comes from a place deep in the heart, so deep that the twins don't bother ripping the pulsating muscle out, but rather, invoke the spirit that lies dormant within to deliver a surprising level of humanity to the proceedings. As far as the picture's carnage takes us we're allowed, in more than one instance to even be moved by the plight of some of the characters.
The screenplay, written by the Soska twins, is - on its surface only - a rape-revenge fantasy, but it goes so much further than that. It's a vital examination of subcultures representing people disenfranchised from the aforementioned accepted standards of human existence. In a world increasingly aspiring to the living death of homogeneity (this includes those who purport to be untouched by homogeneity), the characters will never fit any mould that represents "normalcy", no matter how hard they try.
Within the world of the film, those who refuse to conform (not because it's "cool" to do so, but because they simply cannot conform) seek avenues that will fulfil their basic needs as human beings, no matter how strange or repellent a majority finds them.
The tale told involves Mary (Katharine Isabelle), a med student struggling under the crushing weight of ever-mounting debt and the constant psychological abuse from her mentor Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), the chief professor of surgery - a field of practice she longs to serve in. In desperation, Mary scours the "adult services" want ads and is drawn to one with keen interest. Under the cloak of night she arrives at a nondescript warehouse in an industrial park that emits the thumping bass of dance music, a neon sign promising sensual delights and a burly doorman who immediately allows her entrance - as he clearly does to any babe seeking admittance.
Mary meets with the charmingly sleazy proprietor Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) who scoffs a bit when she hands him her resume. The only pre-requisites to work in his club are a good overall "package" (which he discovers after telling her to strip to her undies and show-off her gorgeous body), an ability to deliver a fine massage (as she ably proves with her nimble surgeon's fingers) and a willingness to suck him off with skill and abandon (which, she sadly never gets to do). The job interview is interrupted with news that all is not well in another part of the club. Knowing Mary is a med student specializing in surgery, Billy asks her to join him.
In a dank, dungeon-like room within the club's bowels, Mary's eyes widen at a gruesome sight - nothing to phase a surgeon, but the context would be, at least initially, pretty bizarre to anyone - even her. Whatever goes on in this room, has gone seriously awry and as luck would have it, Mary is just what the, shall we say, doctor, has ordered.
For a wad of pure, hard, cold cash - the likes of which she's never held in her hands, Mary agrees to perform some illicit surgical magic which will not only make a wrong right, but provide a much needed service beyond simple lifesaving. The subject, twitching and bleeding on the filthy table, will most definitely require saving, but the painful manner in which he will be saved will provide him with added ecstasy.
Soon Mary is in demand amongst the body modification subculture who troll about the same underbelly as those who work and patronize the club (in addition to the genuine underground activities involving extreme masochistic indulgence - no healthy, mutually consenting BDSM here - this is a place where people go to be maimed, hurt and tortured).
The other subculture portrayed is that of the surgeons themselves. The Soskas create a creepy old boys club where the power of slicing into live human beings has engendered a world of ritual abuse. In the worlds of body modification and masochistic gymnatics, the subjects are ASKING for it. Not so within the perverse world of the surgeons. They use psychological abuse to break down their victims, then administer kindness and fellowship to lure them, then once their quarry is in their clutches, they use deception of the most cowardly, heinous variety to fulfil their desire to inflict sexual domination.
The body modifiers and masochists are pussycats compared to the surgeons who are portrayed as little more than pure exploiters. Their air of respectability as healers and academia is the weapon they use to commit violence and perpetrate subjugation.
Someone's gonna pay. Bigtime.
So, I'm sure you've already gathered that American Mary is not (Thank Christ!) Forrest Gump. We're bathing in the cinematic blood spilled into the tub that is this movie by the insanely imaginative Soska Twins - clearly the spawn of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Elizabeth Bathory with, perhaps, some errant seed from Alfred Hitchcock or William Friedkin.
One of the extraordinary things about American Mary is that it dives headlong into a number of subcultures, which, even if they've been completely and utterly pulled out of the Soska Sisters' respective Autoroutes de Hershey, they feel like genuinely real worlds. The locations, production design, art direction, set dressing and costume design for the various interior and exterior settings look lived in and completely appropriate to the scenes in which they appear.
Even the curse of most lower-budgeted Canadian films - that notorious lack-of-dollars underpopulation - is not especially egregious as some Canuck pictures since many of the settings demand it, while others are appropriately framed (most of the time) to mask it. As well, the Soska Sisters generally have a good eye for composing shots that provide maximum dramatic impact and the lighting and cutting is always appropriate to the dramatic action rather than calling attention to itself.
The performances are generally first rate and the background performers always look 100% right for the scenes. The fine acting, coupled with a script packed with dialogue that's always in keeping with both character and milieu rather than going out of its way to be overtly clever, also contributes to the overall sense that we're wandering through very real, albeit completely, utterly insane worlds. This is also not to say the film is bereft of stylish visual touches, but they're again used for dramatic effect rather than the annoying curse so many younger filmmakers suffer when they abandon narrative (or even dream) logic to say, "Look Ma, I can use a dolly." And believe me, when a shot and/or cut NEEDS to knock the wind out of us, it happens with considerable aplomb.
What sells the film is the world the Soska Sisters create. It's seldom obvious and more often than not we believe it - or at least want to. In many ways, the film is similar to the great early work of Walter Hill (pretty much anything from The Warriors to Streets of Fire) wherein he created worlds that probably could ONLY exist on film, but within the context of the respective pictures, seldom felt less than "real". (That said, Hill was ALWAYS showy, but he knew how to make it intrinsic to the dramatic action.) This makes a lot of sense, since it always feels like the Soska Twins are making movies wherein those worlds that exist realistically on-screen, but furthermore evoke a feeling that the film has been wrought in a much different (and probably better) age than ours.
Dead Hooker in a Trunk and especially American Mary, seem to exist on a parallel plane to those halcyon days of 70s/80s edginess reflected in the Amos Poe New York "No Wave" - not to mention other counter culture types who straddled the underground and the mainstream - filmmakers like Scorsese, Rafelson, Waters, Jarmusch, et al who exploded well beyond the Jim Hoberman-coined "No Wave". Their work even approaches a bit of the 80s cult sensibilities of Repo Man, Liquid Sky or even such generational crossover titles as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) and the deranged work of more contemporary directors like Eli Roth, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino - all of whom "steal", to varying degrees, from earlier periods of film history, but use the work of previous Masters as a springboard to make the pictures all their own. (By the way, I'm not necessarily suggesting American Mary is culled from any of the aforementioned but rather, that the Soska Twins are clearly working in the same sort of exciting territory. It's especially dazzling when it's within a burgeoning stage of their development as film artists.)
A number of the cast members are truly first-rate. Katharine Isabelle as Dr. Mary has come long and far from her groundbreaking performance in the classic John Fawcett-Karen Walton werewolf picture Ginger Snaps. Here she delivers a courageous performance on a par with her turn as the cursed teen werewolf back in 2000. It's 12 years later and Isabelle has blossomed into a tremendously engaging screen personality. The camera might actually love her even more now that she's gained considerable physical maturity (and the Soska Twins have definitely used their four great eyes to work with their cinematographer Brian Pearson's additional two eyes to add to her stunning, real-woman looks). Isabelle's 12 years of toil in mainly television has given her a myriad of roles and experience, but in American Mary, her brave, deadpan (and often very funny) delivery blended with moments where the character is clearly repressing anything resembling emotion is the kind of thesping that demands more roles as terrific as this one. Please, get this woman out of Television Hell and put her on the big screen where she belongs.
Antonio Cupo as the sort-of male love interest is both sleazy and endearing (a pretty amazing double whammy). David Lovgren is suitably creepy and reptilian. Paula Lindberg as the nipple-extracted bombshell who also gets her vagina sewn shut and Tristan Risk as the body modified dancer who promotes Mary's talents far and wide, both transcend the expert makeup effects to bring their respective characters' spirits beyond the almost freakish intensity of their body modifications. And finally, no review of American Mary would be complete without a special nod to Nelson Wong who wins the alltime accolade for the scariest, creepiest, sickest, funniest rendering of a surgeon you hope NEVER to meet - even in your dreams.
American Mary is a true original. I recently had the pleasure to personally express to William Friedkin that his new film Killer Joe - in spite of how violent, scary, horrific, darkly funny, nasty and just plain vile it was - sent me out of the theatre in a state of sheer, unadulterated bouyancy. This pleased the Master, greatly. Somewhere out there in Canuckville's Lotus Land, I hope the Soska Twins realize just how utterly bouyant there own crazed, brilliant film is. And someday, I expect them to deliver one kick-ass devil-may-care Friedkin-like rollercoaster ride through hell after another.
I'm sure they'll do it.
"American Mary" had its Canadian Premiere at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival (TADFF 2012) and will be released in Canada via Anchor Bay. For further info, feel free to visit the TADFF website HERE.