The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
“Loneliness can do strange things to the mind.”
Horror movies in recent years have a bad tendency to go for the third act “big reveal” — one last twist to unravel what you thought you knew about what’s been going on. We can blame the success of The Sixth Sense for this ongoing trend, but more often than not it’s due to a lack of confidence from the storyteller. There is doubt that their story is strong enough to sustain interest — that the audience is waiting, needing, demanding that the rug be pulled out from under them. Nicolas Pesce doesn’t have that doubt in The Eyes of My Mother. After the characters are established, the story is as straightforward as you’ll find in any other horror movie this decade. The fact that it’s a beautiful movie to look at also sets it apart from others in the crowded genre.
There is a danger in unveiling too much about The Eyes of My Mother, a movie that will no doubt be spoiled to death once genius execs start to piece together its trailers. It’s best to go into it as blind as possible, so please be aware that I’m trying to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, and if it seems to be lacking specific description here and there, I’m well aware of it. With all that in mind, let’s lay down the film’s starting point: We meet a girl named Francesca who lives on an isolated farm with her mother and father. One afternoon while the father is away, the women are visited by a stranger. An unimaginable act of violence unfolds, and while retribution is taken, the story doesn’t go where one imagines it would. The police are left out of it altogether. Why? Why indeed.
With his feature-length debut, writer/director Pesce never explains the “why” and that proves key to Eyes’ success. These characters are who they are. Pesce doesn’t let us off the hook with a flashback an hour in. He doesn’t film a scene where local teens discover old newspaper clippings in a nearby townhouse. We’re left to our own devices, our own make-believe. There is a trust here that we just don’t get in mainstream horror, and Eyes is so much stronger for it. Instead of wrapping himself up in cheap scares and tired twists, Pesce offers up hugely satisfying alternatives.
Eyes is shot entirely in B&W, and it’s hard to imagine it filmed any other way. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein takes advantage with scenes lit only by characters’ lamplights, creating an eerie sense of shadows, not actually people, creeping through fields at night. The displays of cruelty and suffering are broken down to their bare essentials. The setting is so strong that we don’t need the visual of red blood to make us shiver or tense up. The writhing around in a black-and-white world is more than enough.
If the movie looks beautiful at every turn, its sounds are just as ghastly. Sound mixer Patrick Burgess gives us chains dragging across wooden floors and empty streets that sound unfathomably heavy. Maimed people eating mush sound as though they’re chewing next to your ear if not chewing on it. The guttural noises from people who can no longer scream and shout are unbearable. The ripple of clothes on the line as an assailant marches towards the damned. Knives going in and out of … things. The Eyes of My Mother is a visual and aural nightmarish feast for those brave enough to partake in it.
As for the performances, the focus is always on Francesca, who is played as an adult by Portuguese actress Kika Magalhaes. Her look is almost always severe, though she moves around with violent, balletic grace. Francesca’s motives seem as unescapable to her as she is to the people she encounters. Magalhaes manages to frighten and call for sympathy in equal measure, never losing grip on a character that has no grip on what reality actually is. The dead remain dead. Not everyone is a friend. Some people are born evil.
I allude to scenes of torture and brutality, but in no way should Eyes be lumped in with the “torture porn” permeating through horror. In mainstream circles, porn still has the negative connotation of being “cheap” and “trashy.” There is nothing that appears “cheap” or “trashy” in Pesce’s debut. Though it doesn’t end with quite the punctuation it deserves, The Eyes of My Mother is a beautiful nightmare from start to finish.