The Eyes of My Mother starts behind the wheel of a truck. A murder ballad plays on the radio as the driver grinds the gears to a halt and gets out to investigate why a woman walked into the road, sensed the truck’s approach, and then didn’t run away but lay down in the giant truck’s path.
It’s an eerie way to start a movie, but it turns out to be the least unsettling part of Nicolas Pesce’s first feature film, a nightmare that’s shot like an art film. The Eyes of My Mother is skin-crawling gothic horror about mutilated minds and bodies, which makes its frame-by-frame monochromatic beauty all the more unnerving.
The Eyes of My Mother is a coming-of-age tale gone very dark
The Eyes of My Mother feels like a folk tale. Told in three chapters titled “Mother,” “Father,” and “Family,” it’s a growing-up story gone horribly wrong, with some pronounced psychological overtones. Young Francisca (Olivia Bond) learns from her mother (Diana Agostini), who was once a surgeon in Portugal, about anatomy, dissection, and the similarity between the eyes of cows and of humans. This all seems a bit macabre, but for the most part, they live a quiet life on a farm in the Midwest, and things seem peaceful.
That peace is shattered when a stranger named Charlie (Will Brill) shows up and casually forces his way into the house; Francisca’s father (Paul Nazak) returns home to find his wife being viciously murdered. Taking his revenge, her father elects to bury his wife and chain Charlie in the barn after beating him. Francisca goes a step further, both stitching Charlie back together and mutilating him further. (This is really not a movie for anyone with a weak stomach.)
Time passes. A now-grown Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) is still tending to the invader, but she’s also clearly deeply lonely. When her father dies, she goes to the local bar and picks up a young woman (Clara Wong), who grows uncomfortable during their conversation and leaves. In response, Francisca heads for the barn and brings Charlie — who must have been out there for a decade or more by now — back in.
The events continue to spool out with increasing senselessness. Casual torture is, it seems, the only way Francisca can construct some messed-up semblance of a “normal” life, perhaps because she seems stunted by isolation. (There are some low-grade resonances with Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth here.)
With no clear explanations for its events, The Eyes of My Mother is even more terrifying
The Eyes of My Mother indulges in profound time gaps, the better to let our imaginations fill in the blanks with the worst. The result doesn’t seem to add up to anything in particular, which may be its strength: It’s not exactly social commentary, not entirely a probing of the human psyche. It’s impenetrable — frightening and stomach-turning, but without an obvious corollary in human experience.
Is The Eyes of My Mother about mental illness, psychological trauma, twisted family relationships, or all of the above? The movie drops hints in all directions, purposely hitting all those notes and more. As with most stories involving apparently random cruelty — whether it’s Francisca or The Dark Knight’s Joker — the aggressor is that much scarier for not having an origin story, a single cause on which to pin their behavior. Young Francisca seems unnaturally obsessed with death; her mother tells a cryptic story about a disorder that affects the eyes but also the psyche; the trauma of the invasion explains a little, but not much.
And because it’s shot in serene, carefully graded monochrome, the story seems like it could be set anywhere and any time, existing equally in the past, present, and future. The juxtaposition of violence and serenity is far more disturbing than an unrelenting assault of violence would be. Just when it’s settled down, it starts again.
This narrative, inexplicable and fraying at the edges, is what’s so horrifying — which, for aesthetically tuned-in fans of horror, is exactly the point. The Eyes of My Mother is effective and unsettling, and as a first movie from Pesce, it promises much more in the future. It’s not going to explain itself to you. It won’t ask for permission to exist. It’s just going to leave you chained in the dark, blinded and wondering.
The Eyes of My Mother opens in theaters on December 2.