“The Eyes of My Mother,” Nicolas Pesce’s hypnotically eerie debut feature, builds calmly and quietly to one of the most appalling sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. I’ll keep the details vague; anyone inclined to seek out this movie’s dread-soaked pleasures may as well take their poison straight. Suffice to say that the scene involves a frightened woman, a screaming child and the sort of remote Midwestern abode that, over the course of a swift, indelible 71 minutes, becomes a veritable charnel house of bloody terrors.
What makes this particular tableau so disturbing is that it echoes an earlier encounter in the film — the suggestion being that evil, left to its own devices, will inevitably repeat the same chilling patterns from one generation to the next. In the most literal sense, those devices include scalpels, hacksaws and heavy chains, all of which are wielded here with a level of skill matched by Pesce’s own exquisite technical mastery.
His sense of horror craftsmanship is at once meticulous and oblique. Working with the cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, he has absorbed a crucial lesson from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” filming in lustrous black-and-white images in which shadows are as dark and inky as bloodstains. The editing scheme is similarly restrained, often cutting abruptly from the buildup of a violent scene to its grisly aftermath, and leaving the worst of the carnage to our tortured imaginations.
At the center of the movie is Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), a lonely young woman who, it’s perversely suggested at the outset, may have been named after St. Francis of Assisi — one of several religious references that loom incongruously over the story. A cross can be seen hanging on the wall of the farmhouse, and Francisca herself spends much of her time in prayer, though not to any god who might care to listen.
Pesce’s deftly sutured screenplay is structured in three chapters (titled “Mother,” “Father” and “Family”), each one adding a fresh wrinkle to a disquieting psychological history. Over a time span of several years, the house bears witness to a series of unfortunate visitors — some of them wholly innocent, like the girl (Clara Wong) who accompanies Francisca home one night. Not so innocent is the leering home invader (Will Brill) who, in one terrifyingly framed interior shot, seems designed to bring back memories of Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955).
“The Eyes of My Mother” feels indebted to that lyrical horror masterpiece in more ways than one, with its monochrome cinematography, its rural American setting and its rigorous adherence to a childlike perspective. Adults are frighteningly absent from Francisca’s hushed, secluded world. Her father (Paul Nazak) is a stiff, nearly catatonic presence. Her mother (Diana Agostini) is a more compassionate figure who, as we learn early on, once worked as an ocular surgeon in her native Portugal. She trained her daughter depressingly well.
At once briskly and deliberately paced, sustaining a precise narrative clarity even as it seems to flow with the logic of a nightmare, “The Eyes of My Mother” confounds expectations and defies easy categorization. Is it a high-art “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”? A feminist rethink of the Ed Gein story? All of the above, perhaps, though it also turns out to be about something much more universal, which is a child’s instinctive desire for companionship — a need that will ultimately be met, and by any means necessary.
‘The Eyes of My Mother’
English and Portuguese dialogue with English subtitles
MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent content and behavior and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles