Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a med school student studying to be a surgeon. She's dedicated, spending Thanksgiving sewing up her turkey as practice rather than roasting it, but like most students, she's struggling to make ends meet. To prevent her phone bill from getting shut off, she decides to respond to a Craigslist ad looking for exotic dancers. In the middle of her interview with the club's owner, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo), one of the patrons is wounded, and Barker gives Mary $5,000 in cash to sew him up and keep quiet about it. Before long, other underground patients are showing up at Mary's door, flush with cash and looking for help with procedures that other surgeons would think twice about.
American Mary is a tough movie to review. Its ambition is admirable, but its sloppiness is not. It's a film directed and written by women that tackles subjects that are sensitive to women, but in doing so it often plays into stereotypes or implies things that don't seem to be intentional. Every moment is big and bold and screaming for attention, in a way that oscillates between exciting and obnoxious.
To jump right to the core issue: Mary is raped. In fact, the rape is listed in the MPAA rating description, but I'd forgotten by the time it became clear what was about to happen. Mary is invited to a party by a doctor she admires (Clay St. Thomas), and she excitedly accepts, thinking that she's being accepted by people she hopes will become her colleagues. Unfortunately, they invited her because they figure her visible new wealth means she's turned to prostitution. She tries to leave, but she's already been drugged by one of her professors (David Lovgren), who takes her into a bedroom and records himself raping her, while she floats in and out of consciousness. A few days later, she quits med school.
Rape has a history in horror movies, often as the premise for revenge flicks that present the woman as a fury men were foolish to scorn. Unfortunately, "survivor's strength" can easily become "rape creates strength" with the wrong emphasis, and that's the problem with American Mary, which the film fails to support on multiple levels. First of all, for this one scene, Mary is portrayed with bright-eyed innocence and naivete that she doesn't have before or after. Before the doctor invites her, the lesson of the day is about learning to deliver bad news, and Mary doesn't hesitate to tell some strangers that their father is dead. When she applies for the job in the strip club, she's on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of or exploit her. Not only that, but by the time the rape occurs in the movie, Mary has already earned a boatload of cash from two successful surgeries, one of which she sees has transformed that person's life for the better. Although she has reservations, Mary has already found a bit of empowerment through her own actions, and there's no reason other than ugly shock value to bring in rape as a motivation for committing to her new life.
Second, the addition of the rape creates dead weight in the story. American Mary is not actually a revenge thriller, but the thread that stems from the rape continues through the film, introducing a detective (John Emmet Tracy), because all movies where criminals are the heroes have to have a detective that the audience likes but roots against. Meanwhile, the "core" story is about Mary's new business and the repercussions one of her surgeries ends up having. The conflict in this thread is shifted way toward the end of the movie, and it's really cheesy and stupid, but there's no reason the rape thread couldn't be lifted right from the movie, and this other thread reshaped into a central narrative. The film feels as if the sisters came up with the character, had a brainstorming session on the stories that could be told with Mary in them, then crammed them all into one movie. Finally, even if the rape had a place in the movie, there are other problems: the Soskas stack the deck by making Mary's rapist an unrepentant asshole from the very beginning, and screw up the biting observation that the doctors all assume Mary is a prostitute just because she has money with an earlier scene in the film where she considers prostitution before switching to erotic dancing (it's only her first thought, and brief, but it still basically says the doctors are "right").
Aside from the rape, despite being directed by women, American Mary doesn't seem to have a great opinion of women. This is the kind of movie where all the women are casually cruel to one another for no real reason. One patient brings her daughter, who seems to have no purpose but to say "cunt" a whole bunch, for the sake of comedy. One of the surgeries involves a strange comment on Barbie dolls that totally overestimates society if the Soskas believe what the patient is saying, and which is another snipe against innocence and naivete if they don't. There is even a scene where Mary is mean to the woman at the phone company that has an air of gendered anger to it. The Soska sisters themselves appear as clients for Mary in a series of scenes that have no apparent narrative meaning, other than an extended Hitchcock moment for the both of them. The body mod community could've provided some interesting elements to the film, but it never becomes more than a minor backdrop element, which feels like a waste. The one side thread that's interesting is the side thread of Billy's sad, unrequited crush on Mary. Frankly, the Soskas' economy of character in bringing Billy back at all is fun.
There is a darkly empowering story somewhere in American Mary. The film has a great lead in genre vet Isabelle, who seems excited to dig into a role with so many facets (disparate as they are). Sadly, the Soska sisters aren't interested in focusing on that story, choosing instead to tell multiple stories at the same time, muddling the film's subtext and wasting a ton of potential on a movie that's, well, poorly stitched together.
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