Here’s a recurring nightmare I’ve had since seeing Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother: I’m parking my car — I don’t even have a car — on a desolate street in broad daylight. As I put change in the meter, a man walks close beside me, then closer and closer until his arm is touching mine. I try to scream when he grabs me and puts me inside his truck, but I have no voice. It’s the height of the afternoon, but no one sees or can help me. I’ve been watching horror films since I was three years old. They’ve never given me nightmares. Until now.
In the opening moments, grade-schooler Francisca (Olivia Bond) stands mesmerized by her mother’s (Diana Agostini) professional surgical skills, on display as mom dissects a cow’s eye on their kitchen table — she was an eye surgeon back in the old country. Within minutes, a jittery preacher-like man (Will Brill) approaches the house and utters to the mother the words of every woman’s nightmares: “Is your husband home?”
In the country, where the wind whips through tall fields and a long gravelly drive sets the colonial prairie home off from a road that’s empty of cars anyway, mother and daughter are at this man’s mercy for a quick, barbed scene that changes the course of Francisca’s life. Pesce makes the inspired decision to depict all violence offscreen. What’s shown instead are the jarring emotional moments, as Francisca watches her stoic father (Paul Nazak) bury her mother and chain the murderer in their barn. The high-contrast black-and-white photography renders the color of blood in grayscale, almost anesthetizing its presence in the film, unlike many horror pictures that rely on crimson for a visceral reaction.
Father and daughter carry on as though nothing has changed, and after Francisca’s successfully sewn up the murderer’s wounds, she tells him with chilling sincerity that she doesn’t plan to kill him. “You’re my new friend,” she chirps.
Halfway through the film, we shift some ten years later to grown-up Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), the loneliest woman who ever lived. Her quirky, polite demureness belies her psychopathy — that man is still in the barn. Only now, his eyes are sewn shut and vocal cords severed. His rasp as he slurps down his nightly gruel brought back to me vivid memories of the cult classic Motel Hell.
There have been very few movies of which I’ve said to myself, “This Foley artist deserves an award.” But when all the gore and violence and terror can only be suggested or hinted at, the sound — not the image — of a sharp knife pulled from a drawer ringing out over a long shot of the prairie while a bloody, beaten, blinded man stumbles through the grass means everything. One moment, when a knife plunges into someone’s skin over and over, resembles a shovel unearthing mounds of wet earth, a sound that’s returned to me in dreams. Leslie Bloome and Joanna Fang are the Foley artists; Patrick Burgess is the sound designer.
It’s like the German Expressionism of Night of the Hunter meeting the intrigue and body horror of Audition, with the surgery-obsessed girl of May. Consider whether you have a few nights open ahead of you when you can lose some sleep.
The Eyes of My Mother
Written and directed by Nicolas Pesce
Opens December 2, IFC Center
Available on demand