The Last Thing Mary Saw, 2020.
Written and directed by Edoardo Vitaletti.
Starring Rory Culkin, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stefanie Scott, Carolyn McCormick, and Judith Roberts.
Winter, 1843. A young woman is under investigation following the mysterious death of her family’s matriarch. Her recollection of the events sheds new light on the ageless forces behind the tragedy.
Edoardo Vitaletti makes an effectively stately directorial debut with this respectably pared-down period horror, which prefaces character and performance over tricksy supernatural hooey.
The Last Thing Mary Saw opens in medias res in 1840s New York, as young Mary (Stefanie Scott) is interrogated about the peculiar circumstances of her grandmother’s demise. Throughout the questioning Mary wears a bloody blindfold, the precise cause of which is slowly unfurled as we leap back in time to observe the events leading up to this very sit-down.
It all begins when Mary falls in love with her strict religious family’s young maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). The family, believing this behaviour sinful, punishes the two for their “ungodly” relationship, typically by making them kneel on uncooked rice. Mary and Eleanor continue to secretly conduct their romance away from prying eyes, but as they soon come to discover, gruelling discipline from a bigoted family is to be the least of their concerns.
With the sudden appearance of an unsettlingly stoic young man (Rory Culkin) in the homestead, and increasing hints of at least a few dark pasts bubbling up to the surface, Mary and Eleanor will see their very lives threatened.
For a good portion of Vitaletti’s movie, the central conflict appears to be a simple one cloistered away from its genre label; a seemingly typical tale of “alternative” living bracing up against religious fundamentalism. As Mary memorably says early on of the faith-based intervention in her and Eleanor’s relationship, “God creates his enemies in order to do his good.”
Even in its most pronounced moments, the supernatural aspect of the story is stripped back and minimal, the precise machinations held afar until the very end. As much as it may frustrate some, the coolly calm, fringe approach to the expected horror shenanigans is really quite refreshing, as is the pic’s unfussed, even glacial pace despite its mere 89-minute runtime.
Vitaletti often stages and scripts his story to resemble a filmed play; there’s the simple blocking, limited use of locations, and even some knowing Chekhovian elements. Were it not for the fact that the film were so dialogue-sparse at times, it’d be easy to imagine it playing out on stage.
Vitaletti uses the silence of these sans-chatter passages to underpin the girls’ voicelessness both literally and figuratively, as they become increasingly compelled to push back and enact their own will against their aggressors. Punctuating the pregnant silence, the occasional bursts of violence prove all the more jolting as a result.
If some may find The Last Thing Mary Saw stage-y to a fault, just as many will appreciate the self-contained intimacy, bolstered by simple-but-pleasing production values. David Kruta’s precise framing and simple lighting setups, bathing almost the entire movie in low candlelight, rouse a quietly eerie atmosphere which goes hand-in-hand with its oft-wordless suspense and detached depiction of dogmatic torture.
But the single reason that this low-fi concoction truly works? The actors. Scott and Fuhrman are especially strong as the two put-upon lovers who must scheme their way into doing something as simple as spending the night together undisturbed. And yet, far from a bodice-ripping love-in, their romance is told more in sensual terms, where even with so little being explicitly said about their feelings, the red-blooded loaded glances sell it all superbly.
Rory Culkin is also effortlessly creepy as the port wine stain-clad interloper who rocks up mid-film and brings a tremendous amount of presence with him just when the movie needs it. Without going into too much detail, his character has quite a story to tell, and Culkin’s performance skulks around in intriguingly ambiguous quarters without giving itself over to obvious, hammy temptations.
The wider supporting cast of fanatical homophobes also deserves credit for not rendering these people in strictly cartoonish terms. There’s a far more disturbing solemnity to their acts, where they seem not to relish one ounce of the torture, so committed as they are to the belief that what they’re doing is right.
While the film perhaps ends on an overly cutesy note, the rising grimness and gut-wrenching suspense of the third act somewhat compensates for both this and its drier first hour. But even at its most sober, this modestly-conceived story is brought to life by its game cast.
Its depiction of oppression may be both too familiar and restrained for some, but strong work from its three lead actors makes Edoardo Vitaletti’s chilly period thriller a worthwhile sit.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.