I walked away from American Mary puzzled about how to rate it as a film. You kind of have to take apart its elements and grade them individually. I'm not convinced it's a success, but there are many bits strong enough to warrant praise and certainly a viewing, preferably in a very loud theater filled with fellow weirdos.
American Mary focuses on Mary Mason (played by Ginger Snaps' Katharine Isabelle), a medical student with aspirations to become a surgeon. Instead, she uses those surgical skills to become Queen of the Canadian body modification scene, getting paid big gobs of money to split people's tongues, shove beads under their skin, and make cat ladies. (I'm generalizing; unfortunately, the film features not one damn cat lady).
This body modification aspect of the film doesn't really work as well as it thinks it does. The directorial team (Jen and Sylvia Soska, aka The Twisted Twins) direct their asses off. Everything looks great. The comic timing of the editing is clearly crafted by people who know what they're doing. The sound design deserves special recognition as well.
But the sisters arrogantly take it as granted that this subculture will shock and revolt us, when it never quite lives up to this predetermined outcome. It comes close at times, though, when they confront it with the same level of fun and absurdity that aids the rest of the film. One character, for instance, has modified her facial features to resemble Betty Boop to genuinely disturbing effect. The Twisted Twins make an appearance as sisters who love each other so much that they literally trade limbs. Much of it, however, seems satisfied with shoving shots of a dude wiggling his bifurcated tongue in our face as if to say, "See, pretty shocking. Right, Dad?" I'm sure some will cringe at close ups of Mary's scalpel as it cuts through nipple flesh, but I found myself unfazed. Everyone in the film acts like this stuff is normal; pretty soon I was right there with them.
Katherine Isabelle highlights the film's inability to make the body modification stuff come alive thanks to her Daria-esque emotionless performance which frequently gives her the appearance of being above reacting to some clearly fucked up stuff. Early in the film, after a lady requests Mary sever her nipples and close off her vagina with a flap of skin, Mary offers us one brief moment of surprise before spending the rest of the film largely stone faced and unaffected.
But Mary is also one of the film's key strengths. The film goes out of its way to frame her as kind of a neutral sociopath. She's capable of abject acts but only when convinced to give a shit, which is an interesting approach to the hip dourness of her character archetype. As the film progresses, this aspect of her character becomes more of a gift, and we can see how it makes her such a great surgeon.
The film's greatest surprise and most valuable asset is its pitch black humor, which displays the clearest manifestation of this directing team's talents. Constructed by impeccable writing, editing and performances, the jokes in this film land with a nearly uniform solidity and unpredictability that never resorts to lazy non sequiturs. When viewed as a film about crazy body modification, it leaves a lot to be desired. As a comedy, however, it's a crowd pleasing success, even though it loses points for lacking a cat lady.