American Gothic: The Tranquillity of Evil
There’s a rather famous iconic painting created by Grant Wood way back in 1930. It was titled ‘American Gothic’ and depicted a farmer and a woman standing solemnly in front of what could be their farmhouse. A nostalgic piece of Americana is presented an idolised appearance of what the country believes itself to be. Effectively it’s a piece of advertising. But what if that ad was masking the true horrors behind the facade and artifice of colonial heritage, it’s blood pooled fields. What if the pitchfork was for killing rather than tilling.
I’ve no idea if that painting was an influence on new kid on the horror butcher block Nicolas Pesce’s ‘The Eyes of My Mother’ (2016) but the parents in this horrific pastoral tale bare such a striking resemblance to the painting, that it must be true. It’s as if the colour slowly drained out from the bottom of the beaverboard it was painted on, and the couple calming strolled back to their little farm of horrors.
A family of Portuguese descent live on their farm in complete rural isolation. There is a profound serenity and peace to this uncluttered world. It’s stunningly shot in black and white too, so even the lack of colour information brings a placidness and stoicism to this world. The mother used to be a surgeon back in Portugal, her speciality being eye surgery. She has the poise and cadence of a figure who has performed many delicate operations. She also has a matter of fact approach that only comes from being around farm animals and cadavers all her life. There is an air of intellectual analysis and rigour complemented by their environment as immigrants in the middle of nowhere in a foreign land, where ‘Loneliness can do strange things to the mind’.
Much like the winds in the superb Iranian horror ‘Under The Shadow’ the winds seem to carry an evil and strolling off the back of a night breeze malevolence saunters in bearing the mask of a friendly wanderer.
The husband is away, so it’s only the mother (Diana Agostini) and daughter Francisca (Olivia Bond) who converse with the stranger. It doesn’t go very well, at all.
Whether this trauma is the seed of what is to unfold isn’t inherently clear. Given the esoteric peculiarities of the family, their response to events has the traits of familiarity and also of the complete lack and awareness of sanity. Nature versus nurture, versus murder.
Horror begets horror in seemingly the most natural and mundane ways, as normal as the daily routine milking cows. It’s this trait that serves the film and the clinical brutality to a resounding success. This is Pesce’s directorial debut and it is outstanding how accomplished a piece of work it is. There is a profound confidence is the astutely assured languid pace this journey travels throughout the blood seeping years.
Events unfurl like the seasons and time passes. An older Francesca (the hauntingly captivating Kika Magalhaes) now lives with her effectively bred son, still in isolation from the rational world. There is no apparent judgement in Francesca’s actions, as if every interaction/dissection is a science study, or an animal hunting for it’s cubs.
It would be a remiss to not return to the cinematography by Zach Kuperstein which is nothing short of exemplary. The poetry of the macabre and gothic story (also written by Pesce) is beautifully captured and aptly enhanced in every single frame. The lighting and framing are a dark lurid beauty to behold, enticing you into enrapturing fathoms of madness. There are stark moments that shadow the works of Hollywood masters who escaped from the theatres of Nazi Germany, there is a rawness and obscurity of reason, where the nocturnal concealment of the mind and reason prevails. All scored to the wonderful eerie work of Ariel Loh created with vintage analog synthesizers.
There are many an established director who have cut and sharpened their directing teeth, then tore and ravaged the flesh off their filmic debuts via the horror genre. Nicolas Pesce has resolutely stepped up to this movie chopping block and left his bloodied fingers prints everywhere. He clearly has found an equally talented and focused crew (and cast) to surround himself with which will no doubt translate and transform into a very successful career, splattering many fields of inspiration.
9/10 ‘The Eyes of My Mother’ is in cinemas now.