Horror films have always had an intriguing, thorny relationship with morality. The realm of films predicated on inflicting all manner of mayhem and torture on their subjects seems about as far away from morality tales as possible, but the link between the two has existed nearly as long as films themselves have. The slasher movie renaissance of the 70's and 80's provided perhaps the most express example of the phenomenon, often operating on an underlying conservative moral code, punishing their teenage victims who indulge in hedonistic tendencies with extreme murder and dismemberment, offering a boogeyman-like cautionary tale for those tempted to step out of line ("Pay attention, kids! If you smoke and drink and sleep around, it's a one-way ticket to machete-town!"). Even more chilling, though, was the rise of the amoral slasher, the monster who kills for the sake of killing, no rhyme, no reason, no discernible pattern. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the masterpiece of that trend, with Tobe Hooper's orgy of random violence creating a blood-curdling sense that anything could happen to anyone at any time, regardless of whether punishment is deserved. That film seems to have informed first time writer/director Nicolas Pesce in the creation of his debut, The Eyes of My Mother, a nasty piece of business about a young girl born witness to a random act of tragedy at a formative age and the shock waves it generates that resonate through the rest of her life.
Shot in stark and stately black and white, the film takes place on a secluded farm that is the home of Francisca (Olivia Bond as a child, Kika Nagalhaes as an adult), her mother (Diana Agostini) and father (Paul Nazak). Her mother is a retired surgeon, and spends her time teaching techniques to her impressionable daughter on severed cow heads. But when a clearly suspicious salesman (Will Brill) talks his way into the house in order to brutally murder the mother, things take a turn for the young Francisca. Her father beats and subdues the man upon returning home but does not kill him, allowing her to stow him away in the barn as a pet or companion of sorts. Once he recovers enough from the beating to regain the ability to speak, the following fateful interaction occurs:
”You let me in”
”You’ve done this before. Why do you do it?”
”It feels amazing”
This moment hatches something inside Francisca that festers and rots as it grows. She never leaves the farm, isolated from the world and surrounded by the bodies of her dead parents and her murderous plaything in the barn. She was paying attention during those surgery tutorials. They came in handy making sure her friend doesn't raise too much ruckus or try to escape. What would be the fun in that?
There are quite a few factors that make The Eyes of My Mother as disturbing as it is. The cinematography from Zach Kuperstein shoots the farm like an apocalyptic ghost town where the rest of the world could have been consumed by fire and you'd never know. The camera is placed with obsessive and exacting care, just on the outskirts of the real violence but more than happy to drink in the aftermath in all of its depraved gory glory. The stillness of it all, backed up by an icy score from is a clear link to the stillness within Francisca, an overwhelming sense of eerie calm in the face of all the atrocity she performs. This is normal life for her, with no propriety or morality to be found. The horror she inflicts is acutely terrifying, denying her victims ("friends"?) the senses needed to escape and punishing them when they try (including one particularly harrowing moment best left unspoiled that just makes the skin crawl). The approach shares quite a bit of style with another recent debut horror film, Ana Lily Amirpour's neo-noir vampire Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, with its austere setting, stylish black and white aesthetics and seemingly unfeeling female protagonist with a proclivity for violence. Of course, the girl was a redemptive character. The same can't be said for Francisca.
The lack of change or development of Francisca's character in The Eyes of My Mother compared to a film like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night speaks to some of its weaknesses that don't sabotage the film, but do manage to hold it back a bit. Francisca has an arc in the sense of tracking her evolution from impressionable girl to unrepentant monster, but there is little beyond that but a feeling of randomness to her cruelty that is not wholly satisfying from a narrative perspective. Granted, random cruelty is not a new concept for horror movies (Leatherface wasn't exactly brimming with internal motivation), but those characters are often not expected to carry the film. The development and interest comes from the characters the villains terrorize. When that villain becomes the main character instead of the victim(s), it can lead to diminished resonance and empathy, which can happen from time to time during The Eyes of My Mother. How she came to be who she is is plain to see, but we still need reason to care about what she does when she reaches maturity.
As a result, The Eyes of My Mother works best as an analytic experience instead of an emotional one. Its aesthetic pleasures are numerous (impressively so for a first time director), from cinematography to editing to music to sound design (a particular highlight), and the performances are well-pitched to complete Pesce's aims. The depths of depravity and the choice to leave the real violence to the imagination are alluring, but the otherwise randomness of it all manages to keep any real emotional response or catharsis at an arm's length. It is an auspicious project for a debuting director, and Nicolas Pesce clearly has the visual acuity and voice to make him one to watch moving forward. It's not quite there, and perhaps with just a little more storytelling verve, The Eyes of My Mother could have found a place among The Witch or The Wailing in the top tier of 2016 horror releases. As it stands, it's a notch below them, but that in itself is no small feat.