The Eyes of My Mother is, without a doubt, a visually captivating film. First time writer-and-director Nicolas Pesce shoots in a rich black and white, relying on southern gothic imagery and a sharp play between light and shadow. His shots are long and deliberate, and the camera rarely moves; instead, the actors slowly slip through various creative tableaus as the scenes play out.
But The Eyes of My Mother also has the weaknesses of many early filmmaking efforts: its conceit is clear-eyed and tailor-made to unsettle, but the movie doesn’t really know what to do with itself beyond that.
The story opens on a farmstead – a large rambling house and a nearby barn, set back from a country road – where nearly all the action will take place. Young Francisca (Olivia Bond) is being raised by her mother (Diana Agostini) and father (Paul Nazak). A small shrine in the home is adorned with Latin Catholic imagery.
It’s clear right away something is off: The parents are rather old to have such a young child; and Francisca’s mother, a former surgeon, gives the child lessons in vivisection by practicing on the carcasses of cows from the farm. She has a particular knack for cutting into eyes. There is no evidence of neighbors or connection to a larger community, and almost no hint of greater civilization at all. Francisca’s father is a silent, largely absent presence.
One day, a salesman (Will Brill) – lanky and be-topped with unruly curls and supremely creepy – stops by the home. After cajoling his way inside with a request to use the restroom, the salesman forces Francisca to sit at the kitchen table at gunpoint. Then he beats her mother to death in the restroom. Francisca’s father arrives home to find his daughter still sitting in the same spot, and the salesman by the tub. So he cracks the murderer over the head and then chains him up in the barn. Father and daughter bury their mother in the woods. No police are called.
Later, when her father complains that he can hear the prisoners’ wailing, Francisca goes to the barn and deftly removes the salesman’s eyes and voice box, but leaves him alive.
From that point, the action jumps forward in time to Francisca as a young adult (Kika Magalhaes). Suffice to say there will be more murders and more eyes and voice boxes removed, and more people chained up in the barn. (The salesman is still there, now that Francisca is grown, by the way.) Francisca does not appear to be a sadist or to take any pleasure in the death and degradation she dishes out. Magalhaes’ skillful, unnerving, calm, wide-eyed performance makes that pretty clear. Rather, she simply does not know how else to relate to the world. The rest of The Eyes of My Mother concerns itself with Francisca’s attempts to live life – go on dates, discover sex, build a family – through the prism of that particularly bizarre and gruesome behavior. As she tells the imprisoned salesman at one point, “Why would I kill you? You’re my only friend.”
How Francisca got to be this way is never explained. One can certainly draw inferences: The overwhelming isolation of the farmstead on which she grew up; her mother’s particular interests, and her father’s indifference. But it’s never really determined.
This would not be a problem – lots of great films don’t bother with backstory – except the film doesn’t know where she’s going, either. Pesce spins out most of his script from the creepy, relentless logic of Francisca’s nature. But the ending, while certainly logical, is profoundly anticlimactic and sheds no additional light on what’s come before. We’re left with some great cinematography and great moments: There’s a lovely shot, entirely seen through the farmstead window, of how Francisca deals with an escaped prisoner. And another long overhead observation of a grief-stricken Francisca literally crawling into the tub with a deceased love one. And watch Magalhaes’ performance when her character dispatches a life with an almost affectionate and gentle manner.
Beyond that, all Pesce’s got is his unsettling refusal to judge his protagonist’s actions. He forces the audience to sympathize with her fears and longings, and her way of relating all those needs to the world. But the fact that it’s possible to empathize with a monster is not nearly as shocking as The Eyes of My Mother needs it to be – if it’s going to rely on nothing else. The film has no real suspense or scares, so it’s not a thriller. And it’s shot far too clinically for the conceptually gruesome events to register much visceral horror.
The final takeaway is, well, all that happened, and wasn’t it odd?