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[Review] ‘The Eyes of My Mother’ is Shocking, Minimalist Horror That Makes You Its Prisoner

‘The Eyes of My Mother’ is an incredibly strong debut film that paints a broken, evil world that will haunt you

“And whether or not it is clear to you, the universe is unfolding as it should.”

The Eyes of My Mother is a very dangerous movie. It presents one of the most shocking narratives I’ve seen out of a horror film in 2016 (Don’t Breathe’s turkey baster notwithstanding), but does so in such a soothing way that you almost don’t realize that you’re watching the birth of a serial killer here. Impressively, Nicolas Pesce’s film engages you with its disturbing tendencies in such a subtle way that it almost resembles the parenting styles of the negligent guardians that populate the film. You’re slowly being warped, but you’ve come to accept all of this as normal by now.

Pesce, who also writes and edits the film, splits the film up into compelling, progressive chapters that heighten the mystery and tension that this film feeds off of. The Eyes of My Mother also expertly plays with your anxiety and expectations, keeping you guessing where this is all heading. The film is almost immediately thrust into a rather disturbing direction. It’s incredible how Pesce can make the unseen, mysterious sounds going on behind closed doors connect in such monumental ways. Less is certainly more with this film, but the moments where it does indulge and push the envelope over the line are all memorable highlights. The Eyes of My Mother is a wet log that is begging to be turned over and have you expose all of the gross horrors that are thriving underneath it.

The Eyes of My Mother is a film that forces your imagination to do a lot of the heavy lifting as it fills in the blanks for what you’re not seeing happen. This approach to the horrors end up fueling the film in such a delirious, successful way. Some of the film’s most powerful moments happen off-screen with you merely reveling in the aftermath. It’s almost like you’re blacking out the trauma as some sort of coping mechanism. I’m a bid fan of the sorts of stories that focus on a child slowly getting their perspective of the world warped courtesy of a deranged, barely-there guardian. I still think of Palahniuk’s Choke as one of the most effective examples of this, and Pesce’s film here creepily taps into the same sort of energy. You’re as helpless and unsure of what’s going on as the young Francisca is. You might as well be her sibling through all of this. Even after the titular Mother exits the picture, seeing the metaphorical callouses on Francisca’s dad from all of this still hold weight and carry on the message of perverted guardianship.

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There are a number of upsetting scenes that see the young Francisca simultaneously acting as Charlie’s (her mother’s murderer) keeper. There’s the steady impression that this child might actually kill this man, in the process enacting her repressed revenge on the man that uprooted her family. However, watching her play nice and treat him like her “only friend” is a lot more effectively icky than simply watching a cute child wield weapons and be all violent-like. Having Francisca bond with and form a sick relationship with Charlie works better than you’d even think that it would.

In a lot of ways, The Eyes of the Mother is the definition of minimalist filmmaking. The film has a run time that doesn’t even crack 80 minutes and some gorgeously stark black-and-white cinematography that both feed into the idea. This is a film that lingers on haunting angles and the contrast between whites, blacks, and greys, rather than flooding you with vibrant colors or frenetic camerawork. It wants you to hesitantly sink into this disturbing world like an uncomfortably warm bath. There are also some great pieces of cinematography here, like the camera getting disturbingly close on characters via close-up and other jarring angles that are constructed to make you feel uneasy. Frequently placing the camera in inspired set-ups or composing bifurcated scenes that split your focus in gorgeous ways all benefit this minimalist effort. On top of all of this, the film will repeatedly pair upsetting sound effects and audio affectations with equally harsh visuals.

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Crazily, in the film’s second chapter, a huge time jump occurs wherein Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) is now a grown woman who could be a mother herself at this point. The film trades in its disturbing child angle in favor of presenting you with the aftermath of what’s happened here, while showing you a fully formed Francisca, scars and all. Rather than wondering on what all of this will do to her, we actually get to see the next stage of all of this. The film’s second chapter explores Francisca and her relationships—specifically her “pet’s”—even more deeply. Francisca’s naturalized dependency issues become increasingly more intricate. The film contrasts Francisca’s bond with her actual father and this villain that she’s “adopted” to infinitely interesting degrees. The fact that she can euthanize her own blood, but not this person who’s actually damaged her is extremely telling, with The Eyes of My Mother being very interested in exploring this dynamic and digging deeper into all of the perversion that’s been left to blossom.

Francisca is a big ball of id through most of this film as she ping-pongs between caretaker and executioner in each stage of her life. She’s constantly replacing loved ones with enemies and vice versa, all the while highlighting how messed up she’s become courtesy of her childhood. There’s a bizarre “date” scene where Francisca kind of opens up and some sentimentality and awkward sweetness is tapped into. You can’t tell if the scene is going to end with Francisca killing or kissing this person. It’s scenes like this that highlight how disaffected and broken this grown-up version of Francisca is. She’s a bundle of psychoses and compulsions and they make every scene particularly tense since we’ve all seen set-ups like this before and your mind wants to jump to the worst conclusion.

This film is scary, uncomfortable, and disturbing in a number of ways, but it’s also surprisingly a love story more than anything, albeit a deeply poisoned one. Each passing chapter in the film shades in another unhealthy dimension to everything. And on that note, the film’s third, final, chapter sees Francisca going on a chilling hitchhiking venture with an unsuspecting victim, commandeering her family in the process. It’s yet another unexpected direction for the film to go, but one that completes the layered idea of family and carrying on a legacy. This stuff hits hard and has some of the most evocative, callous images playing out before you. Francisca is a strong, dangerous character, with this film very much charting the origin story and birth of a serial killer whether the film is marketing itself as that or not.

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Unsurprisingly the film also just flies by, with its short run time leading to this compact, economical endeavor. It’s crazy that this film spans so much time (decades, in fact) in a measly 72 minutes. There could easily be another half-hour—hell, even a full hour—to this picture, and while expanding the boundaries wouldn’t be the worst thing in such a rich film, leaving the audience wanting more is ultimately the right decision here. Such a dark world is painted here in such disturbing strokes. It’s enough to just graze against it and get the taste of how corrupt things are. That’s not to say that Pesce wouldn’t stick the landing in making this longer, but this degree of restraint is appreciated in his first film. Let him get crazy and meandering with his next picture.

I haven’t been as shaken to my core by a horror film than I have by this one in a while. It’s just such an upsetting, cyclical message here that’s predicated on random acts of evil in the first place. This is a film that’s the living proof that people can be inherently evil. I wouldn’t dare give away the film’s ending, but I couldn’t help at smile at just how perfect it is and how it ties the film together in the neatest, most satisfying manner. The Eyes of My Mother is a Möbius strip of horror and carnage that must be seen to be believed and shows the start of a growing master in the field—both in terms of director and villain.

4.5/5

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