What happens when life doesn’t go as planned? When the simple expectations that we set for ourselves and others fall way below acceptable standards? Many of us end up lost, wandering in a haze of confusion and misdirection that, if left unchecked, can put us on a destructive course that we may never recover from. The real world is cold, harsh, and unforgiving, though we are brought up to believe otherwise. This simple and unwavering fact lies at the core of Jen and Sylvia Soska’s new film “American Mary”.
Mary Mason is a medical student, a starving medical student more to the point. She is alone in the big city, trying her best to survive her schooling which brings the promise of a well-paying career. She is dedicated and enthusiastic, but also a little bit desperate. The world seems to be closing in on her from all sides, Proctors on one end and bill collectors on the other. With no other alternatives, Mary seeks a job as an exotic dancer, after all, the money’s good and more importantly, immediate. Arriving at the low rent and downright seedy strip joint (say “seedy strip Joint” with a New York accent for proper effect), she meets owner Billy Barker, who might as well be wearing a shirt that says scum bucket on it, or so we assume.
Mary is an innocent, in its purest form. She brings a resume to her strip club interview, just in case he might request it. This is the first of many complexities in the film. Usually, its takes a smart and seasoned individual to bother bringing a well-maintained resume with them to a job interview (trust me, that statement is surprisingly and alarmingly true), but it takes an innocent to bring a resume to an interview at a strip club. Not to mention the fact that we have an innocent girl applying to work at a strip club in the first place. Some people may find the entire scenario unlikely, but I’ve known many young women in a similar situation who end up doing the same thing, because dancing for money and showing some flash sounds much better than sitting alone in a dark and empty apartment with nothing but your thoughts.
It’s not only the innocence but also her sense of professionalism that sets Mary’s life on a collision course with madness. In the middle of the interview, one of Billy’s guys burst in and informs him that they’ve got a serious problem. Annoyed and angry Billy runs out, telling Mary to stay put. This is the first of many turns in the film. Billy returns, desperate, demanding to know how far along Mary is as a surgeon. Being satisfied with her answer he offers her $5000 cash, no questions asked, for a patch job. Mary handles it and walks out $5000 richer but leaving her resume behind. This almost immediately leads to a second job, a larger job that calls upon all of her skills as a surgeon, and requires her to learn a few new ones.
Once the money has a grip on her, it begins to dictate the course of her actions, and of course this happens quickly. With cash in hand, Mary handles her business as well as treating herself to some new threads. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the surgeons at her school, and soon Mary finds herself invited to very swank party. So desperate for approval and overwhelmed at the thought of socializing with the medical professionals that she so desires to be, she doesn’t question it and the Mary that walks through the hotel door is never truly seen again.
American Mary is a downwards spiral of a film and I mean that in the best way. It’s first and foremost a horror film, but it’s also equal parts a cautionary tale, and maybe even a little bit romantic comedy. It’s a tale not only of innocence lost but also innocence found. As Mary’s life seems to spiral out of control many of the characters whose lives are jaded and chaotic reclaim their innocence and find focus through her. And for a moment they all seem to be on the same page, but the reality is that they’re ships in the night, heading in opposite directions.
Mary has a pet bird; it’s interesting to note that once Mary accepts her position as a back alley surgeon and moves into a new place that can also serve as her office, we never really see the bird again. Its cage remains covered. In the East, birds symbolize the departed soul, and in the West, the bird symbolizes the saved soul. Mary seems to be Hungarian, and Hungry is considered the transitional country between the East and the West. Which does the Bird represent? Since it remains covered, it can be thought of as both departed and saved, dead and alive. Perhaps it’s a reference to Schrödinger’s cat. Either way, the principal remains the same. No, I’m not over-thinking the film, it really is that deep.
American Mary is a deeply effective film. You can’t help but fall in love with Mary and want to save her, and she wants to be saved, but won’t let you. Like the best films, it will haunt you for days afterward, forcing you to play out scenarios in your head where the sun would rise and better decisions would be made.
Katharine Isabelle is Mary Mason and is absolutely captivating. In the many great performances she has had over the years this is her finest. She owns the character and the film every second that she is on screen, causing us to feel emotions that are constantly at odds with each other, and that takes subtlety and talent.
Antonio Cupo, who plays Billy, the strip club owner is truly endearing. As we get to know him through his actions we find that he is not the two-dimensional thug we perceive him as at the beginning of the film, but Mary’s counterpart, a little boy who got lost along the way and is just doing what he needs to do to survive.
Tristan risk as Beatrice Johnson, the living Bettie Boop stripper, kind of represents choice in the film. She is a saint and sinner, Mary’s salvation and she could end up being her undoing. Beatrice is a woman who has the best intentions, but whose world is violent, unpredictable, and most of all, unforgiving.
Lance Delgreggo, Billy’s strong arm and Mary’s protector, is played by Twan Holliday. A leather clad enforcer whose performance may be the film’s most poignant, in the sense that he’s the only one that brings out the light and Mary’s eyes, if only for instant.
And finally, Paula Lindberg as Ruby Realgirl, the ultimate in duality represented on screen. Ruby is the innocent sex symbol, the beginning and the end, the cause and effect and in some ways, the moral center of the film.
Every one of these performances is crucial to the film and I do not hesitate to say that each of these characters is important to the story no matter how large or small the part.
This brings us to the Soska sisters. The girls are wise beyond their years and talented beyond reason. That may sound heavy-handed, but I’ve seen many many films by many many writer-directors and it takes a very special person, or persons, to make a film this perfect on their sophomore try. The last person to do it was David Fincher with his film “Seven” and that was almost 20 years ago.
With Dead Hooker in the Trunk, Jen and Sylvia Soska showed the horror community that they can make complete and entertaining film with almost no money. With American Mary, they’re about to show the world what they can do when you write them a check. Beautifully composed shots, lighting that conveys warmth while sustaining the feeling of cold isolation, and layers of imagery and emotional substance, this is a film to be absorbed, and you will do so with minimal effort. A film about hope and love as much as it’s about violence and violent intent.
I urge everyone to see this film and support it. An original horror idea by arguably the next great film-making team and brought to life by true artists. American Mary is the type of film you can discover again and again, seeing something new each time you watch it. There are so few of those films out there and even fewer filmmakers capable of telling a story in such a way. I’ve met the future of horror; its last name is Soska.
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