Wednesday, June 12, 2013

American Mary (Soska Sisters, 2012)

(Note: This review originally appeared on Truly Disturbing. I haven't had time to go through the normal formatting.)

AMERICAN MARY is an unexpected experience. With it, the Soska sisters are continuing a new generation of film makers attempts to merge the art house and the grind house. Steeped in the visual aesthetic of film noir and the tropes of the long, lurid and wonderful history of grindhouse cinema, AMERICAN MARY’s mind and soul belong to the art house. With Katherine Isabelle as their sharpened scalpel, they go about dissecting the experiences of a talented young woman in a world dominated by men. Don’t be worried though, it’s not a broad, obvious feminist screed. One of the most impressive things about the film is that it uses story, character, atmosphere and imagery in order to avoid turning into a heavy handed approach to these thematic elements. Also, to their credit, the Soska sisters give their main character a degree of complexity that’s often absent from even the best horror films that are inspired from the history of grindhouse. It may or may not have been intentional, but AMERICAN MARY would be perfect when paired with AMERICAN PSYCHO on a double bill.

Mary Mason, played by Katherine Isabelle, is a medical school student attempting to become a surgeon. From the outset, it’s clear this is not an easy road for her. Her professors expect a great deal, and there’s also the matter of exactly how a talented young woman who doesn’t come from a wealthy family might be able to afford medical school. Mary is doing her best, but still coming up short and needs to solve her tuition problem, quickly. Her attempt at a very cliche solution ends up taking a bizarre turn that solves her money problem. Unfortunately, due in part to just how well it solves her problem and in part to the way the men in power around her perceive women, she ends up in the kind of situation nightmares are made of and endures an experience which changes her ideas about herself and her direction in drastic ways.

Katherine Isabelle gives an outstanding performance, as a well written character that actually
develops and has a real arc through the course of the film. It’s a combination of performance and writing that end up gelling together to create a character that not only carries the entire film, but that also helps to make some of the films short comings seem that much less important. There are some tonal issues along the way, as if the Soska sisters were trying to do so much with the film that a few instances don’t quite match up to the rest of the film and some performance/dialog issues in one or two of the much smaller roles, but they end up falling by the wayside and being of little consequence as soon as Isabelle is given the time and room to bring the attention back to Mary. Over the course of the film, she covers a lot of ground with the performance. Mary is at points the submissive student, in desperate need of approval, a menacing, dangerous and truly unpredictable presence, she’s also a capable, in charge and very much on top of her game professional, at other points a vulnerable person who is just in need of a friend. None of that sounds like your typical horror film protagonist, but that’s one of the best things about this film. Mary is anything but your typical horror film heroine or protagonist. There is very
little dialog to give away what Mary is thinking or feeling. The Soska sisters have done wonderfully in avoiding the kind of after school special monologues that plague so many films that make any attempt to deal with heady subtext. Instead, everything that needs to be known about Mary is in her actions and reactions. She’s not interested in telling anyone how she feels or what she thinks. She’s interested in dealing with what’s at hand. It’s a refreshing change of pace and Katherine Isobel plays it all beautifully. It’s impossible not to watch her as Mary progresses.

That reveals one of the great things about the Soska sisters writing. Mary isn’t a hero, nor is she a villain. She’s certainly not the typical anti-hero either. Through Mary and the journey they’ve written for her, the Soska sisters are able to say some pretty complicated and nuanced things about talented, powerful women in a world dominated by men, without reducing her to the simple role of victim. It’s interesting and unexpected in that the story’s structure is something akin to the more fatalistic film noir of the forties and fifties than the standard horror films of today, but it’s not at all interested in being chained to that genre either. In it’s visual presentation, it is very much at home with both the grindhouse revival and contemporary horror films, but at time uses shadows and light in a way not dissimilar to those old noir films. This is where some of the less successful tonal shifts come from, and in part because of just how good Katherine Isabelle is, and also in part because of how interesting the look, atmosphere and general feel of the film are, they never throw it off course. They’re more bumps in the road than falling off the track.

One of the hardest things to decide about the film is just what audience will most likely embrace it. As a horror film, it lacks the kind of on screen violence audiences would expect, but it’s not short on blood, brutality or deeply disturbing content either. It’s not meditative, self seriously intellectual or even interested enough in being embraced by the average art house audience. The subtext is way too dense and it’s too thematically heavy for the general multiplex crowd as well. The Soska sisters have demonstrated an outstandingly unique voice that can synthesize many of those elements without ever becoming completely beholden to any of them and making a film that is unique and completely their own.

What they’ve done is create something that is equal in it’s entertainment value, it’s artistic merit and it’s social commentary. It’s not a completely perfect film, but it does signal the emergence of a creative team that has the ability to develop into a powerful, evocative, intelligent voice in genre film making that could, if given the opportunity, transcend genre and play a positive part in a larger cultural context.

If nothing else, AMERICAN MARY is a signal to the world of cinema that Katherine Isabelle and Jen and Sylvia Soska are the real deal.

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