For decades the origin and motivations of the serial killer has been one of the most interesting and deeply unsettling dynamics of horror storytelling. Why do these creatures do what they do? What makes sense in their minds? What influence or event changed or reinforced the evil inside? These questions haunt the sub-genre of horror and true crime. Debut filmmaker Nicholas Pesce finds menacing answers to all these questions in the highly acclaimed and profoundly disturbing The Eyes of My Mother. Pesce builds a predator’s life in three acts, where we learn that the root of all evil lies in family.  

One of my top three favorite films of the festival, I saw The Eyes of My Mother in a near empty and early morning screening. This intensified the film’s macabre beauty more effectively than if I had seen it a packed theater; it was the emptiness of the theater, the lines of the darkness, and the silence surrounding the vacant seats.

The story begins with a mother (Diana Agostini) and her young daughter, Francisca (Olivia Bond). They live on a farm and for the brief time we see them together, the mother teaches her daughter the life cycle of animals. Learning about the power and portals of the eyes from her mother, a disturbed drifter named Charlie (Will Brill) visits their home and takes the family hostage after committing an unspeakable act. Her father returns home to discover the act and take justice upon himself. Being chained and held captivate in the family’s barn, Francisca befriends Charlie, which leads to Francisca’s first unstructured loving relationship outside of her family. The Eyes of My Mother begins to explore and evaluate whether evil is born or nurtured. This becomes the central focus of part one as we see Francisca deal with the loss of her mother under tragic terms and a shift of withdrawn parental guidance from her father, played by Paul Nazak.  

Part two continues the story years later as Francisca, now grown, still lives with her father and still cares for Charlie inside the solitary confinement of the barn. Charlie is treated as a pet, dehumanized on every level. Pesce finds space in this part of the narrative, seeing Francisca (now played by Kika Magaihaes) form into a black widow type of predator who has taken her craft of hunting victims to a new level as she has matured into the woman before us. Her idea of a relationship has revolved around the captivity of Charlie, picking up potential victims, and the disconnect and death of her father, which foreshadows her role as a survivor and provider, and her need to be a mother. In part three, Francisca becomes that mother figure through insidious means that culminate with her world being shaken to the core in the very dramatic, chaotic, and emotional conclusion of The Eyes of My Mother.

I found the film truly scary and connected with it deeply. For me, the reality of the human monster frightens me more than the idea of a hulking serial killer, a clown, or the idea of a monster or spirit. Working with a variety of behavioral young adults in variety of home settings over the years, you wonder if the idea of evil and the deep desire to fit in could manifest into what we see on the screen in the developing and evolving character of Francisca? Played in different stages by two extraordinary and talented actresses, you are captivated by their cunning and menace, and the sense of emerging isolation that will lead to horrible events over the film’s runtime. The sympathy, beauty, and awkwardness found in Magaihaes performance as the older Francisca is enamoring and tempts you like siren song across the dark, abysmal ocean. You are left unsure of your mind and the truth behind feeling connected to such a human monster. This especially goes out to the actor Will Brill, who plays such a pivotal character (Charlie) and showcases tremendous talent as the different stages of his life with Francisca unfold.

Pesce was wise to shoot this film in the beauty of monochrome. The shadows, lighting and landscape submerges the viewer into the routine world of Francisca and paints a canvas of sights, shades, sounds, and stimulations. The openness of the farm country comes alive within the black and white cinematography and that the buildings grow older with the characters is a melody that is as haunting an element as you will find in an arthouse project like this. Shot on an ARRI, you see the benefit of high profile camera equipment and a team of crafters like Pesce, cinematographer Zack Kuperstein, the art direction of Caroline Keenean Russell, and production designer Sam Hensen. Kuperstein especially shines with his angles, depiction of the characters, and the range of movement and flow to each frame in every stage of the film.

Perhaps more impactful then the cinematography is the incredible sound mix that boomed through the nearly empty theater facade. Each sound coming from the victims, whether being cared for, held captive, or killed by Francisca is piercing and unsettling, and forms a sensory bond. The sounds of life moving from one moment at a time to years is crucial to the terrifying pulse of this tale. The film’s score composed by Ariel Loh is perfectly matched to the emotion, thrills, and true darkness in each character. Despite the fact that this is Loh’s first feature film score, you can see how he and Pesce communicated ideas and understood how to make the mask and monster meet. In addition, the effective visual presentation includes FX and makeup from imaginative artists like Brian Budak, Janine Maloney, and Cat Martin, who display craftsmanship deserving of a piece of macabre art like this.

As with previous films about consumption like Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as well as the style of insanity with films like Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool and Mickey Keating’s Darling, this is an example of visionary filmmakers taking chances and exploring territory that reveals their personal demons through each frame. This especially goes for Pesce who co-edited the film, leaving his fingerprint on every stage. The Eyes of My Mother would have not been the surprisingly behavioral study that it is without Pesce, and his fresh perspective takes the reins in each stage of the film. One of the best of the film festival, haunting, smart, and encompassing the landscape of the human condition, The Eyes of My Mother is everything you could wish for from a debut feature that focuses on the sweeping beauty of evil.