Francisca is sort of like the protagonists in Oprah Book Club picks. Having suffered a childhood trauma, she is now perpetuating the cycle of violence. However, her thing for sewing eyes shut isn’t very Wally Lamb. Francisca will duly apply all the lessons she learned in Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
People will try to tell you differently, but Eyes is absolutely, positively a horror film. Even at a young age, Francisca knew how to cut, thanks to her lessons with her retired surgeon mother. Unfortunately, the mother daughter bonding will be cut short when “Charlie” the serial killer fast talks his way into their home. Francisca’s grizzled old father returns in time to save her, but not her mother. The experience will deeply scar the young girl’s psyche. However, it safe to say Charlie does not make a clean getaway either.
As Francisca grows into adulthood, her issues compound and fester. Clearly, living alone does not help her social development—make that mostly alone. Periodically, she will seek ways to alleviate her loneliness, but these only lead to further horrors.
There are parts of Eyes that are tough to watch—like significant audience walkouts at the Library Theater tough. Yet, it is also one of the most visually stylish films you can ever hope to see. Zach Kuperstein’s black-and-white cinematographer is truly arresting, evoking the tone of early David Lynch. Pesce’s command of the audience is also remarkably dexterous. He will leave a good twenty-five percent of the house absolutely mortified, yet he shows very little actual on-screen violence. Instead, he and co-editor Connor Sullivan typically cut away at the moment of impact to a dramatic scene of the aftermath that really drives home the gruesome implications.
Kiki Magalhaes is pretty terrifying as Francisca, but she always conveys a sense of her as a lost, little girl, mired in a state of arrested development. Paul Nazak is also so convincingly grizzled and leathery, we can totally believe he spent his entire life on hardscrabble farms. However, Clara Wong might just become the face of the film as Kimiko, one of Francisca’s starter victims. (Honestly, I probably took her death harder than any other horror movie killing since I first saw Duane Jones get shot in the closing seconds of Night of the Living Dead.)
The problem is Pesce takes things way too far. He crosses lines that are simply no fun to violate (you will know when he gets there by the people voting with their feet). Despite the lack of technical gore (give or take a few sewn-up eye sockets), there are scenes that approach torture porn for the sheer pain inflicted therein.