The Last Thing Mary Saw makes its opening statement with a text card John Calvin quote, that “All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God”. Presented without context, this could be a statement in support of the concept of preordained divine fate. Alternately, it could be read as an invitation to do whatever you’d like given nothing is (supposedly) beyond God’s scope.
When the visuals cut to a young woman, blood from her ruined eyes running down her cheeks, the film’s preferred interpretation perhaps becomes a bit clearer. It’s the late 19th century, in a small town on the southern tip of Long Island. The blindfolded young woman is the titular Mary (Stefanie Scott). She’s being interrogated by constables regarding a tragedy on her family’s farm, the suspicions of witchcraft already thick in the air as she’s forced to recite prayers amongst her more standard retelling. The title is quite literal, and the narrative proper is the story she tells of the circumstances that lead to her current condition.
The family is headed by Mary’s grandmother, referred to only as The Matriarch (Judith Roberts). She is a devotee of an austere, almost crazed piety and keeps the family in a tight line with her strict religious beliefs. This is a house of hard work and strict rules, fear of reprisals taking the place of any genuine affection in dictating daily behavior.
Accordingly, Mary’s Sapphic love affair with the family maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) is considered a dangerous, perhaps even devilish transgression of the family’s established social order. The Matriarch isn’t about to lose her steely control over the family, and takes obvious sadistic glee in a sadistic series of “corrections” meant to cure the two young women of their lesbianism. This abuse has the opposite effect. Soon the couple are bribing the family’s guardsman to look away from their clandestine meetings in the chicken coop, and finding a means to escape to live their lives as they please.
Director Edoardo Vitaletti’s visual world for The Last Thing Mary Saw is well realized, and the house is all flickering candlelight and stark contrasts, the shadows oppressively claustrophobic at the edges of the frame. Only when the young lovers have their illicit meetings does a bit of warming yellow light enter the frame. There are some interesting shot compositions and cinematography as well, characters peeking around corners, or single eyes staring through peepholes, heightening the air of suspicion and surveillance that life under the Matriarch entails.
Yet for all of its effectively bleak and brutal atmosphere, all of this moodiness is not followed with equally robust plot development. The Last Thing Mary Saw is aiming for slow burn, but it seems stalled instead. The film takes glacially long to develop its already slight, somewhat familiar plot beats. There’s some hope to be had with the movie introducing bits of conspiracy and the supernatural to the story in the back half. Unfortunately, it continues to coast on mood without offering many answers to the questions these threads raise.
It isn’t helpful that while both leads are quite good at communicating the fear, desperation and rage of their situation, they don’t have much chemistry together as a couple. The in medias res opening and the setting makes it a foregone conclusion that none of this will end well. Eleanor and Mary’s love is the only bright spot in a decidedly bleak film, and the fact that that aspect seems a bit flat robs everything else on screen of most of its dramatic weight.
Rory Culkin is another very late addition, as a mysterious intruder to Mary’s family home. While he is a talented and committed actor, the part he is tasked with leaves an uncomfortable residue over what exactly the movie is trying to communicate. There’s already a lot of queer suffering related unease built into this story, and he arrives to add to additional pain right as a life without the torture of the Matriarch is within Mary’s grasp.
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What seems merely meandering becomes mostly mean spirited, The Intruder’s whole function in the film to add an uncomfortably on the nose metaphor for the violence of male control and patriarchy typical of the period. In a film full of well worn story tropes, the sexual assault as a shortcut to a dramatic arc is a step too far into an depressingly hackneyed direction.
While The Last Thing Mary Saw does establish Edoardo Vitaletti as a new filmmaker with an excellent handle on mood and aesthetics, his screenplay is far less accomplished. Even with a stacked cast of familiar faces who have shown to have a strong handle on the emotional beats of genre fare, the film feels too familiar. The film has the feel of a mash up of the religious repression fueled horror that has come before. For all of its successes at creating an effective period piece with a modest budget, The Last Thing Mary Saw leaves its characters fumbling alone in the dark, searching for what any of their torment might mean.
Wicked Rating: 5/10
Director: Edoardo Vitaletti
Writer: Edoardo Vitaletti
Starring: Rory Culkin, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stefanie Scott
Release: August 15, 2021 (Fantasia Film Festival)
Runtime: 99 minutes