Tuesday 21 March 2017

Badlands: "The Eyes of My Mother"

Nicolas Pesce's debut The Eyes of My Mother has the running time of a short, sharp, nasty shock (a mere 76 minutes), but it proceeds at a slow creep - possibly too slow for its own good. The aim is apparently to cock a snook at that enduring myth of American self-sufficiency, via a homestead of Portuguese migrants living somewhere in the Midwest, some time in the mid-1960s. In a prologue, we watch the mother (Diana Agostini) bonding with her young daughter Francisca (Olivia Bond) while demonstrating the most efficient way to remove a cow's eyes. This bucolic peace and quiet will only be interrupted when a killer posing as a travelling salesman enters the home, murdering mom - yet dad (Paul Nazak) springs to the rescue, burying the body impassively before returning to his preferred position in front of the television, and allowing his offspring to keep the killer chained up in the barn as her own personal plaything. Francisca grows up to be played by the striking Kika Magalhaes as a houseproud sort, keen to make new friends - but her interactions with passing locals and casual hook-ups position her as somebody you wouldn't necessarily care to visit, if you valued your life in any way. Here, if you like, is a female Norman Bates - a Norma Bates? - although, with a not untypical perversity, Pesce proves altogether more restrained about what he shows than Hitchcock was back in 1960. 

Yes, he has access to grislier make-up effects, but he keeps the majority of the film's kills off-camera, and even gets a laugh from cutting from one victim's frantic efforts to escape to a thoroughly becalmed shot of our heroine on her hands and knees, mopping up what remains. The idea of a minimalist slasher movie - one cut so close to the bone that we barely see any blood - is a clever one, but also one that goes against the viscerality traditionally associated with the genre; the result is a film of equal parts gains and losses. The relationship between Francisca and the man who first brought death to her doorstep overturns the grim male-female dynamics of the torture-porn cycle, certainly, yet no-one seems to have considered how, in 2017, it might be equally problematic to make your boogeywoman a Latin migrant. (Inadvertently, Pesce may just have handed the President the horror flick he was looking to show to his hordes, which is not so clever.) The result demonstrates some skill with timeshifts and paying off business set up elsewhere in the script; Zach Kuperstein's handsome monochrome photography adds to a strikingly melancholy, nocturnal atmosphere. Yet like its brainiac producers Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin's own directorial output (Simon Killer, Martha Marcy May Marlene), it ultimately plays as more than faintly academic: a thesis on the horror genre rather than anything especially horrific in itself, several shades too artful and bloodless to have the impact its maker would presumably like.

The Eyes of My Mother opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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