Warning: Contains Spoilers
America Mary is a subversive gem of a movie, a modern morality play that focuses on the questionable ethics at play in POWER STRUCTURES. The titular protagonist begins the tale as an idealistic, dewy-eyed medical student who dreams of becoming a surgeon. She ends it as a monster.
Her mentor, Doctor Grant, treats her with a harshness bordering on contempt. This is partly a comment on the treatment of women in a male-dominated field, but it’s also a study in how predators select their victims. The early scenes show Mary as vulnerable and isolated. She has no friends and family to be seen, other than a faceless grandmother in Budapest. She’s also in dire financial straits.
For Grant, she’s the perfect victim. His relentless bullying comes under the guise of mentorship, something familiar to many young people. Finally, it culminates in a horrific–though tastefully handled–rape scene.
But unbeknownst to the doctor, Mary has a secret. Through a series of events starting with her job application at a strip bar, she has entered the world of illegal body modification. In the process she has acquired some very unsavory contacts, so she’s not quite the helpless victim Grant imagined her to be. The revenge she visits on him is horrifying.
This movie, like Charlize Theron’s masterful Monster, is about a woman’s journey from victim to villain. While Mary’s revenge is hard to stomach, it’s framed as an attempt to regain control over her own life. This is reflected by her choice of wardrobe in the scene in which she outlines her plans for Doctor Grant.
He took away her sexual autonomy and her power over her own sexuality. It’s implied that he felt justified in raping her because he suspected she was a sex worker. But it runs deeper than that–his early characterization conveyed a deep contempt for women. In order to express this contempt, he chose women he felt he could safely victimize.
There’s a reason Mary chooses to mutilate her rapist while dressed in fetish surgical scrubs: she is reclaiming her sexuality and using her body to taunt a man who she soon renders impotent in more ways than one. Over the course of the movie, we find out that she has removed his limbs, sewn up his mouth and performed some sort of genital modification on him. In short, she has stripped him of all autonomy just as he attempted to do to her.
One has to wonder if Mary is operating (no pun intended) in a state of shock since her rape. We’re repeatedly shown her inability to connect with other people or even her own feelings. Throughout the movie, her appearance becomes more and more polished; she adopts a hard exoskeleton. In doing so, she loses touch with her humanity. Eventually, even the underworld figures at the strip bar begin to fear her.
But if she is a monster, she is a sympathetic one. At no point is she presented as some sort of ideal. Her appeal lies in the fact that she is a complex, well-rounded character.
I’ve never endorsed the view that a female character must either adhere to a checklist or face the stigma of being considered offensive. I would rather one well-written, flawed female character than a dozen bland, politically correct cut-out dolls.
Mary is an anti-hero, and the movie shows us her long, complicated path to that role. She goes from taking arguably justified revenge on a rapist to killing an innocent security guard to finally threatening an exploited stripper.
As Mary moves into the shady world of illegal body modification (a subject which is handled with great tenderness by the directors), she wins the respect of the males around her. Both the staff and Billy, the owner of the strip club, view her as an equal.
But there’s no sense of sisterhood. Mary treats Beatrice, a dancer who repeatedly tries to befriend her, with dismissive contempt. She threatens a stripper caught fellating her potential love interest, ignoring the fact that the girl probably had little choice in the matter. In becoming one of the boys, Mary has thrown away any chance at female solidarity. She shows little concern over the brutalization of other women. Her near assault of the stripper implies that she has become as much of a monster as Doctor Grant.
What makes this movie work is that there’s no attempt to justify her actions or views. Whether any of her actions are right or wrong is left up to us. The Soska sisters trust their audience to be intelligent enough to make their own decisions.
It’s interesting that Mary’s final demise is not the result of her later monstrous actions or even her treatment of Doctor Grant. Her death is a consequence of helping another woman.
Becoming a monster doesn’t kill Mary. Being trapped in a man’s world does.