American Mary (Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2012)
It took me until ten minutes before the end of the movie to figure it out, but once it did, the whole movie (which, I rush to add, I already loved) made perfect sense: American Mary is one of the best examples of modern Film Noir that I have seen in recent memory. I watched it after I had finished up my Best I Watched list for 2013, and so I made the entirely arbitrary decision to put American Mary at #26 on that list; it may rise in a later revision. Yes, it’s that good.
Plot: Mary (Ginger Snaps‘ Katharine Isabelle) is a med school student with a whole lot of money problems—in other words, she doesn’t have any. This leads to some complications in her personal life, one of which gets her involved with small-time mobster Billy Barker (Elegy‘s Antonio Cupo). Billy offers her five thousand dollars, no questions asked, to perform an operation. She accepts, finding herself pulling bullets out of one of his associates. She draws the line there, telling him she’ll never do that kind of work again, but Beatress (Darkest Hour‘s Tristan Risk), a stripper at Billy’s club, gets Mary’s number and asks her to do some grey-market plastic surgery. The money is far better, and she once again says yes. Now her money problems are temporarily forestalled, but a nasty incident (I’m being understated there) with some personnel from the school bring her back into Billy’s circles again, and extreme plastic surgery, it turns out, is far more to her liking than pulling bullets out of mobsters OR attending lectures…
It is well-nigh impossible to go wrong with Katherine Isabelle, who shows hard evidence yet again that she has the acting chops behind the looks. Why she is not on the same level, both in salary and exposure, of Jennifer Lawrence is as beyond me now as it was the first time I saw Ginger Snaps. When she gets the proper script to back her up, she is basically unstoppable, and in American Mary she gets it. Usually I end up dinging a film for the kind of mismarketing this movie got (marketing a noir film as a horror movie), but in all honesty, I feel sort of spoilery telling you this is noir at all, because that revelation was such a key to my enjoyment here. But there’s no way I can explain to you why this movie is so amazing without that. Mary’s progression here is almost step-for-step the same as Walter Neff’s in Double Indemnity or Joe Gillis’ in Sunset Blvd. Both of those films feature a lead whose profession draws him into the web that ends up pinning him to the pavement; the same, with variations, is true of Mary, and again, in each case the decisions the characters make seem reasonable, or would if you didn’t realize that no decision the main character makes in a noir has the possibility of being a good one. It’s a schadenfreude that has always played well with American audiences. The only difference here is that American movie scripts have gotten somewhat more subtle, and more adventurous with the conventions of genre, as we’ve moved into the twenty-first century. This leaves us open to believing that the noir hero may, in fact, be capable of getting away with it, whatever the “it” may be. But you know Damocles is sitting just behind the curtain, giggling, with one of the blades of his pair of scissors resting against the spiderweb. And as Cully Sawyer says in the unfairly-maligned Tobe Hooper reimagining of ‘Salem’s Lot, “this trigger has a three-pound pull, and I got about two and a half on it right now.” I continue to be amazed that a genre film can keep me on the edge of my seat, even if I’m 90% sure I know where it’s going to end up. And American Mary did just that. *** ½