The Eyes of My Mother begins with one of the most effective opening sequences in a horror film I’ve seen in quite some time. The first shot is from the inside of a semi truck as it drives steadily along an open country road in the daytime. Slowly, a person-like shape grows bigger and bigger as the truck approaches it, limping down the middle of the road. It’s a woman wearing dirty clothes, blindfolded, chained, and walking like she hasn’t stood up in years. The driver gets out to help the woman and the film cuts to a wide overhead shot of the desolate, street in the middle of nowhere, with our two subjects surrounded by the dead space. With just two simple shots and one expertly timed cut, the film immediately transports us to a place we don’t recognize, and a place we don’t want to be – but now we’re stuck. I can’t imagine any better intro to a film whose sole goal seems to be to make it’s audience as uncomfortable as possible.
Kika Magalhaes plays Francisca, a lonely young woman who lives by herself in her parent’s farmhouse. She watches her mother get killed at an extremely young age (played as a young girl by excellent newcomer Olivia Bond). She is left with two things — an emotionally distant father and the many teachings her mother left her with about the human anatomy and performing eye surgery. Later, when her father passes away, she goes to extreme measures to find any kind of outside human interaction. Describing any further the details of what can very loosely be described as a “plot” would be a disservice. This a film that is best to enter with a completely blank slate.
I said the film basically has no plot and that is true, but it isn’t a bunch of a random nonsense. There’s virtually no story of any kind to be found, but it’s consistently engaging because it’s completely unpredictable. The character of Francisca is extremely sheltered and obviously not mentally sound. We pity her because of the event she witnessed as a child that sent her spiraling into this eternal state of madness. She’s somehow both the pro and antagonist, turning the viewer, in more than a handful of instances, into a reluctant sadomasochist. We want this character to find happiness because of her desperate, lonely situation, but we wince and cower in disgust at both her methods and the gory, often disturbing results. It’s a brilliant double-edged sword.
Magalhaes’ performance as Francisca is superb. She’s subdued, even in the film’s most extreme and graphic moments — sometimes just standing completely still can tell us everything about what she’s thinking. For much of the film she’s a one-woman show, and there’s a not single moment where we don’t believe wholeheartedly that this character belongs absolutely to the desolate space she occupies. This also can be attributed to director Nicolas Pesce’s excellent shooting of the film’s peculiar setting.
Francisca lives on a farm, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless forest. Deliberately dressed interiors and costuming suggest a 1960s American south, but there’s a weird, perhaps indescribable feeling that leads us to believe it may take place in modern day, and that our lead character is stuck in a time warp (not literally, but you know what I mean). We never truly get a sense of when or where it takes place, and deliberately so. Couple this with the fact that Francisca, nor any of the members of her family act in any way normal or sane — the movie feels completely alien. It’s as if these characters live a world that is completely different from ours, where everything is unsettling and nothing is ever certain. Every scene of this film is soaked to its core in dread and misery, but never any mourning.
The melancholic, yet unnerving nature of the film is presented gloriously through some of the best black and white cinematography I have seen in years. Pesce and his cinematographer Zach Kuperstein bring a ghostly, otherworldly bleakness to Francisca’s shadowy world, often utilizing the Sven Nykvist-style technique of using extreme pure blacks and whites to create a visual contrast. Many modern black and white films often look like they were shot in color and made to be black and white in post (because of many of them are). I do not know if that was the case for this film, but if there was ever a modern horror story that deserved to be shot in such a dreary, depressing monochrome, it’s this. This film takes place in a world that is cold and colorless. Like in the masterpiece The Witch from earlier this year, damp, grey wide shots of woods has never been so effectively eerie.
Also like The Witch, The Eyes of My Mother is one hell of a directorial debut. Even in some of the film’s most befuddling moments, there’s never an instant where Pesce doesn’t have the viewer completely in the palm of his hand. Everything is calculated and so perfectly clear-cut in ways that most directors would have to be a few films deep into their filmographies to achieve. There has no doubt been a resurgence in indie horror recently, with films the The Babadook, It Follows, the aforementioned The Witch, and even to an extent, Don’t Breathe and Lights Out, garnering critical acclaim amongst the indie and award circles. The Eyes of My Mother is another patch on this quilt.
The film’s pacing is glacially slow, despite being only 76 minutes with credits. We feel the passage of time (in this case, about a decade, presumably) more than efficiently, and when the third act goes ballistic — and by “ballistic,” I mean one of the disturbing and gruesome third acts I’ve seen to a film in quite some time — it’s undeniably earned. In light of all this praise, though, I have some reservations about the ending itself. I won’t spoil the details, but it essentially forces our lead character into a corner, and she’s finally faced with the consequences of the life she’s been leading for so long. The actual events that transpire are all well and good, but the climax doesn’t last enough to be effective in the way Pesce perhaps wants it to be. It probably could also have benefitted from having another scene or two afterwards, perhaps in another large time jump. It feels incomplete. It feels…un-dramatic.
This small, but ultimately affecting sour note is what holds the film back from being truly, truly great, but it is nonetheless one of the year’s finest, and most unique horror efforts. I am sure Nicolas Pesce is a name we’ll be hearing mentioned in all these conversations about the modern horror resurgence for years to come. The Eyes of My Mother is a stunningly good debut, with imagery, atmosphere and an unshakable sense of nervousness that has stuck with me in my brain long after seeing it.
OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10
The Eyes of My Mother Can Be Streamed on YouTube here.