‘The Eyes of My Mother’
Director:
Nicolas Pesce
Stars: Kika Magalhaes, Olivia Bond
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

It’s a shock, in “The Eyes of My Mother,” when you hear someone speak English. This art-horror freak-out is, in fact, American, but it looks like the latest import from Eastern Europe. The images are crisp black-and-white. Scenes are banged out in one, carefully framed, unmoving long take. The actors look like they wandered over from a ’60s Czech New Wave film. And though it involves grisly murders and non-elective surgeries, there’s no gore in sight. To really show that it’s serious, and not mere Midnight Movie junk, the violence is either kept outside the image or elided by jarringly casual jumps to the aftermath. When we briefly visit a middle-of-nowhere, very American dive bar, it’s like we’ve discovered what we thought was an alien planet was Earth all along.

This is all according to plan. For his visually assured yet structurally sloppy directorial debut, Nicolas Pesce wants to keep us permanently and in every way off-balance. It’s a kind of origin story, detailing the how of a very screwed-up serial killer. When we first meet her, Francisca is a little girl (played by Olivia Bond) living on a remote, Middle American farm with her crotchedy dad (Paul Nazek) and her wily Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini). One day a twitching stranger (Will Brill) sidles up while dad’s away. He murders mom, and when father returns, he takes him out. But he doesn’t kill him: He chains him inside the barn and leaves him to be the weird new friend of his very lonely young daughter, who realizes he’ll be quieter if she cancels his eyes and tongue.

RELATED: New on Netflix: "Boyhood," "Burn After Reading" and "Paddington"

Francisca will age into a young woman, played by Kika Magalhaes, while her father will pass on. Her imprisoned friend will keep on keepin’ on, driven mad, sounding a couple evolutionary steps away from a grunting pig when he’s fed. Gorgeousness of the lighting aside, this is less a horrific image than a horrific idea and, most of all, a horrific sound. That’s really “Mother”’s forte anyway. This isn’t just a “look ma, no gore!” stunt; Pesce knows that violence is more visceral when heard or thought about than seen. He knows that sound activates the brain, forcing viewers to imagine far worse than what they're seeing. Sometimes it's a simple question of when to cut. At one point Francisca, flirting with becoming a stock horror movie villain, closes in one of her prey. The scene builds and builds; the music crescendos. Then Pesce abruptly jumps to Francisca wiping up inky blood on her floor and methodically packing up baggies of chopped-up flesh.

The strange rhythm of this scene is masterful: Pesce cuts several beats, even several seconds, before we’re expecting Francisca to go in for the kill, leaping forward mid-word. Pesce knows how to work our nerves, all while using the language of Euro art cinema. (A simple shot of the farmhouse bathed in moonlight could be slipped right into a Bela Tarr film.) His fragmented narrative style, complete with chapter titles, helps ensure this is no routine psycho killer romp. Even when Francisca’s stalking future victims, she’s a sad loner — someone warped by isolation and tragedy, stumbling around to find herself, whoever that is.

You could say the same thing about the film. It knows what it is stylistically, and it knows how to get its most nightmarish effects. Whether it knows how to get there is debatable. At its worst, is a disorganized collection of ideas and images and sounds — too up for trying anything, to the point where nothing matters. It will become a slasher movie. It will throw in a set piece where Francisca lures a woman home, only to bag another body. It will have Francisca dance weirdly before her father’s corpse. She will randomly seduce the freak she’s kept chained for years. And it will all end with a fat anticlimax that proves it’s about isolated moments, not the big picture — a movie that never quite ties together. But what moments — moments that will haunt your dreams, no matter where they came from.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge