Whatever the artistic pretense, some horror movies leave you grateful that the filmmaker mercifully chose to shoot it in black and white.
With “The Eyes of My Mother,” that means we’re left with the hope that whatever’s in that glass, we want to believe it’s just tomato juice.
Nicolas Pecse’s debut feature as writer-director is a patient, pitiless thriller, a macabre tale set in the rural South where random violence is the stuff of folk legend, and morbid bluegrass ballads.
Those are the first sounds we hear in “Mother,” a plaintive bluegrass murder ballad about a killer in “North Caroliner” named Charlie Lawson playing over a trucker’s radio in the mountains of Appalachia.
The trucker sees a woman collapse in the road in front of him, and our story begins.
A farm woman (Diana Agonisti) purrs in English and Portuguese to her little girl, teaching her child about the livestock and how cows are like people “in the construction of their eyes.” Before we can say, “That’s interesting,” she’s remembering medical school in Portugal, and showing little Francisca (Olivia Bond) how to dissect bovine eyeballs.
Then the crazy-eyed stranger strolls up. He calls himself “Charlie,” he’s full of questions — grinning all the while. And he wants to use their restroom. He’s nervously rebuffed with “My husband will be back any second,” but to no avail.
“I’m TRYIN’ to be polite,” he lies.
“I don’t quite know what you’re planning” the mother replies.
It’s obvious, even before he pulls the pistol. But Mother wasn’t lying. She’s dead in the tub, with poor Francisca shocked and immobile, when her husband comes home. He dispatches the killer, and he and his little girl deal with her mother’s body.
And it’s back to “Bonanza.” No law, no cops, and it turns out, no eye-for-an-eye. Because Charlie is kept alive, blinded and totally in the power of little Francisca, who has lots of questions for him at her nightly feedings of the nearly-naked, chained monster.
“You let me in.”
“Why do you do it?”
“It feels AMAZING!”
As the years pass, the impact of this tragedy ripples through generations and things turn even more surprising and more gruesome.
It’s a 76 minute film in which nothing happens quickly, even the opening highway encounter and the murder that precipitates Pesce’s story. The exotic Kika Magalhaes is the adult Francisca, who speaks to her long-dead mother and sometimes hears her voice.
She listens to mom’s old fado records — Portuguese laments, tortured torch songs. And she deals with a now-catatonic father and the simpering, aged murderer locked up in the barn.
Pesce went for tone here, the kind of horror that comes from a slow death we see coming a long way off. Every encounter leads to tragedy, or would if this was the sort of movie that empathized with its victims.
But “Eyes of My Mother” is closer to torture porn than tragedy, with nudity, grisly deaths and random undeserving suffering inflicted on one and all.
I like its sense of mystery and the efforts to complicate a simple, grim story that might be told at leisure — it’s awfully slow — over a campfire or in a scratchy bluegrass song. The movie’s unsolved mysteries — how a Portuguese surgeon ended up on a farm in 1950s Appalachia or how this Charlie creep got his start murdering strangers — are intriguing.
Still, there’s no sense being fooled by the arty monochromatic cinematography. Let’s just say that was tomato juice and everybody knows how hard it is to clean up once you’ve spilled it, from a cup or a gallon-sized bottle.
MPAA Rating:R for disturbing violent content and behavior, and brief nudity
Credits:Written and directed by Nicolas Pesce. A Magnet release.
Running time: 1:16