One of the things scary movies do well is explore uncomfortable ideas and ask uncomfortable questions about justice, fairness, safety, good and evil, human frailty, the nature of life and death, stuff like that. All of our most cherished ideas about how the world works are capable of being put under the microscope, of going under the knife. They cut open our understanding of how everything is supposed to be and reveal the squirming guts within.
Okay, so that got more pretentious than I would have liked, but the point stands. Horror at its best often doesn't let us have the safety or sanctity of our illusions, and American Mary is a movie poised to dig deep into taboos about the body, only to shrink back from the real, frightening thing it could express. It has the knife in its hand, and flinches.
Mary Mason is a medical student, and a bright, promising one at that. She wants to become a surgeon - a demanding discipline in a demanding profession. Her teachers are assholes, but what's the old joke? "What's the difference between a surgeon and God?" "God doesn't think he's a surgeon." She's working hard, and she's broke. Medical school isn't cheap, and she's behind in her bills. In a moment of desperation, she answers an ad for some non-sex modeling/fetish/photography work. She puts on her sexiest lingerie and a long coat to go to her "job interview."
It's just as creepy and sad as you'd think. Show the club owner the goods, turn around so he can get a good look at her ass, give the club owner a massage. You can see the doubt, uncertainty, and discomfort on her face. But just as it's about to get sadder and creepier, someone barges into the room - there's a problem downstairs. It turns out someone's gotten hurt, and hurt badly, though it's never specified how. Mary's a medical student, and the club owner tells her that if she can fix this guy up, he'll give her $5000 and she won't have to show him her tits. What a deal. Mary keeps the guy from dying, takes the money, and runs home to throw up and freak out at what she just did. And then the next day, she gets a phone call from Beatress. Beatress works at the club, and heard about what Mary did. Beatress needs someone discreet, with medical training. Money is no object. Beatress has a friend who wants some surgery done.
Some very…unorthodox…surgery. Something surgeons won't do.
It's as promising a premise as I'd want. I'm a sucker for hidden-subculture movies, where shit you'd never think existed not only exists, but there are entire economies built up around it, and are lurking behind any door, down any basement, on secret websites. The realities about illegal cosmetic surgery are horrifying enough that a horror take on them could make for a vividly disturbing movie, a look under some very real rocks at what squirms beneath them. Unfortunately, there are enough problems with American Mary that the possibilities largely go squandered.
One of the biggest problems is how tonally jarring this movie is - there are moments of real menace and discomfort, to be sure, but they're often juxtaposed with dialogue that's glib almost to the point of being goofy. Sometimes it works, helping to ground Mary as someone not in need of rescue - for good or ill, she knows what she's doing, and doesn't have a lot of patience for fools. It's especially effective when she's talking to someone she has horribly disfigured in the cool, even tones of a doctor providing post-op assessment and care, and there's a conversation scene at a party that's bizarre enough that it feels like an outtake from David Lynch's Lost Highway. Instances like those are good, helping to sell a feeling of increasing disorientation, disconnection, and unreality. But other times it completely undercuts the mood that has built up - I think it's meant to be blackly funny, but instead it yanks you out of the moment.
This disconnect spills over to the type of story the movie wants to tell as well - is it an account of one woman's moral and mental disintegration? Is it a journey into the depths of a bizarre, secret subculture? Is it a revenge story? It touches on all of these, but doesn't really earn any of them.
In the beginning, you get the sense that this is going to be the story of how Mary, initially desperate to fund her education, starts compromising her principles in ways that become increasingly horrific, except that after a couple of brief episodes of shock and revulsion, Mary is shown embracing what she does enthusiastically to the point of becoming something of a prima donna. It's not really about the increasingly bizarre things people are willing to do to their body, either, because very little of what's presented is really that outre anymore, and the most shocking things we're going to see are some of the first things we see. There's no journey from "odd, but what harm could it do?" to "really? Well, I need the money" to "oh holy shit what the fuck is this?" It gets weird early and everything after that is going to be shocking at best to people with no previous exposure to the idea of body modification. On the other hand, if you've spent any time on the Internet or watching weird documentaries on TLC, much of this will not be anything new, and - at least in my case, as someone who's had a copy of Modern Primitives on his bookshelf for about 20 years now - not that shocking at all. There's definitely a revenge story to be told here, and the ideas and events related to it are some of the most effective parts of the movie, when it really hits a nerve with a feeling of casual disregard, almost contempt for the privacy and autonomy of someone's body.
But that's wrapped up by the end of the first act. The second act flounders, sort of poking at each of these different stories (and still at its best when it's focusing on the revenge aspect) to see what will work, but doing so without a sense of pacing or continuity. The third act loses the plot entirely, ending the film on a note so anticlimactic and unearned it felt like the filmmakers genuinely weren't sure where to go with their story and just decided to end it instead.
This is all the more disappointing because there's some real promise here - there's a great, varied visual palette at work, ranging from grimy, shadowy callbacks to the basement dungeons of Hostel to cool, gleaming operating theaters to airy loft apartments and warm, sensual penthouses. Some of the best-composed shots let their most important information happen in the background without calling extra attention to what's going on, often making what we see even worse, and there's both cleverness and restraint in how gratuitous gore is avoided - for a movie ostensibly about illicit surgery, we don't see a lot. Although the acting and dialogue don't work as often as they should, when they do connect well with the material, it lends a bracing acerbity to the darkest parts of the movie. And the basic idea is really sound, and between Mary's customers and her teachers, with her in between, there's a lot of room to explore the intersection of body image, consent, technology, power, and biology. But this movie doesn't dive in - it shrinks back, not just from spraying blood and guts everywhere, which is a good thing, but it shrinks back from the ideas as well.
The more I think about it, that restraint really does end up being the movie's undoing. I was really looking forward to a journey down the rabbit hole as Mary finds herself in a position to fulfill the needs of people with increasingly stranger and more specific desires, pushing the limits of what our body can and was meant to do, and coming out the other end completely transformed by her own transformative work, as monstrous as the monsters she makes. Instead, we got a Lifetime Movie of the Week about the extremes of cosmetic surgery, complete with an angry husband. There's no real interrogation of the ideas that technology makes our flesh malleable, and that desire can make the shapes it takes increasingly strange. There's no real, legitimate cost to Mary in what she is doing that we can see after the first 30 minutes or so. There's a germ of an idea that legitimate surgeons are just as morally corrupt as Mary, but that entire question is settled early and not revisited often enough to make it a source of tension or suspense, and in some moments when we should be experiencing real fear or disgust, goofy character moments distance and disengage us from sincere experience. For a movie about illegal surgery, it just doesn't cut deeply enough.
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix