American Mary is the 2012 horror movie by the Soska sisters. The Soska sisters are well known for their visceral style and attention to detail as far as violence, gore, and bringing a visual punch. I wouldn’t label them as just making gore porn, not by a long shot, but they do remind me of other horror directors who put a lot of effort into those aspects of their movies.
The movie follows Mary, a medical student who is struggling financially. She stumbles into some opportunities to make money in ways that aren’t entirely above board, including extreme body modification. Mary has no intention of making this a full-time career. However, when one of her professors sexually assaults her, she drops out of medical school and goes full-tilt into the body mod world, as well as revenge.
I want to get this aspect of my Impressions out of the way, so we don’t have to focus too heavily on it – I have mentioned before that rape/revenge is not my favorite subgenre of horror. I often feel that the directors overindulge in the sexual assault parts; I am not assuming anyone’s intent, just expressing how these movies often make me feel. The balance between the two means a lot to me in terms of my overall feelings at the end of these movies. Mary’s assault is pretty traumatizing, but it is far from the worst I have ever seen. Her revenge also goes much further and is more focused on.
While I actually appreciate the balance in what is focused on as far as assault vs. revenge, the plot of this movie is not the strongest, which makes Mary’s character after the experience feel a bit off. There is minimal build-up from Mary going from throwing up from her first extreme body mod job to thoroughly enjoying torturing her assaulter and going full tilt into this world. I get we are supposed to have the picture painted of Mary snapping and turning into this other person, but the jump from one to the other is so extreme and quick it felt jarring. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we get almost nothing with Mary processing her trauma in the immediate aftermath and instead jump straight to, she’s now numb and out for revenge.
In fact over all that is my biggest issue with the movie; there are a few what I consider to be missteps in story pacing. As I said, the Soska sisters are well known for the way they show violence and the visceral reaction they often evoke, and they do this exceptionally well; this movie is no exception. The problem is I feel the plot, and more importantly, Mary herself, could have been more fleshed out and explored further.
Yes, we get a lot of great (horrible) visuals with her various surgeries and torture. There is also good use of costuming and set design. What is lacking is a fully developed story, though. The ending is rather abrupt with little build-up, and Mary’s trauma is only partially explored. The thing is, the movie dips its toe into that deeper exploration, so I wish it had dived further in. Mary is confronted with how broken she is at one point, but then seemingly moves on after one conversation. Billy, a strip club owner that gets Mary into this world, shares a complicated relationship with Mary that seems to start out of nowhere and doesn’t exactly gel entirely with the rest of the movie. There are these moments, though, where you can see a bit more being scratched at, so I wish they had gone all the way.
There is also an underlying theme of what is really the “bad” world vs. what is the good. Mary is scared of the people she meets in the body mod community at first. However, when the assault happens, it’s relatively clear that every doctor at the hospital is involved in these types of assaults on a rather frequent basis. The scary body modification community is overall kind to each other and to Mary, while the “normal” world is filled with awful people. It’s a decent message, and one frequently visited in horror, but it’s also not very subtle. There are a few moments that break from this, such as the true concern one of the detectives investigating the disappearance of Mary’s assaulter has for her. Conversely, one of the extreme body modification people (one of the Soska sisters themselves) shows aggressive violence for no reason, so it doesn’t over do the message too much, but it’s certainly there. It is also one of the more developed parts of Mary.
Mary doesn’t totally fit into this new world. She didn’t choose it, and she is still a product of the older world that lead to her assault. She is forever stuck between the two, which reads as her being stuck from moving on. This being a cross between these two different worlds leads her to not always being the good guy we are rooting for. She has moments of downright unnecessary cruelty, a piece of the “bad” world she hasn’t totally disconnected from.
So bottom line? Visually this movie is excellent though hard to watch, for me at least, I don’t do gore well. The concept is interesting, and I appreciate the balance in not overdoing the assault. However, the lack of further development of both the story and Mary’s character is a bit disappointing, especially given we see parts where they almost went further with both. However, it’s a good movie and worth a watch, although be warned about the assault scene, of course. I don’t think it’s the best offering from the Soska sisters, but it is good. It will surely have a lot more appeal to people who prioritize the visual element of horror over storytelling, which is some of the genre’s audience, and hey, that’s perfectly fine.