The Films of 2016: The Eyes of My Mother

The Boston Independent Film Festival is currently underway, having kicked off this Thursday evening with a screening of John Krasinski’s The Hollars, which I skipped.  I was more interested in seeing Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother, a horror film so shocking—and so artfully composed—that it makes something like The Witch feel downright schlocky by comparison.  As with so many contemporary horror movies (The Babadook being one recent exception) The Eyes of My Mother fades a little on reflection; it can’t really decide how much plot it wants to have, and so it ends up with both too much and not enough.  But during the neat 77 minutes in which it plays out, the film feels mesmerizing, visceral, and completely unpredictable.

Because so much of the grisly fun of Eyes of My Mother depends on not knowing what horrifying turn it will next take, I won’t divulge too much of its plot except to say that it takes place at a remote farmhouse somewhere in the rural United States, where a mentally unstable young woman named Francesca lives in a state of squalid depravity following the deaths of her parents.  With her delicate features and lithe dancer’s body, Francesca appears to be the very picture of loveliness and grace.  But we soon discover that she is capable of unspeakable violence—Leatherface in the form of a gamine.  Having apparently been raised in almost complete isolation from the world outside her family’s farm, she comes to normalize even the most hideous acts of cruelty, even seeing many of them as acts of tenderness. 

As a film about social conditioning, the banality of evil, and the psychodynamics of the family, Eyes of My Mother could be described as a variation on Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2010).  While grislier and less funny than that film, it’s not without a certain jet-black humor of its own.  As each twist of the plot sent it spinning into ever darker and more gruesome territory, I could almost feel the eyes of the entire audience widening in collective fascination (a metaphor that’s also appropriate for a film that thematizes seeing and blindness).  The Eyes of My Mother provokes gasps and winces, but also the nervous laughter of those who cannot believe what they are seeing, don’t want to see what they can’t look away from, or fear what’s coming and want to see if they’re right.  In short, it plays the audience like a piano.  Staggering out of the Brattle Theatre after the screening, we breathed the sighs of relief that come from having survived a ride on a rollercoaster, and then went laughing into the night.

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