Set in rural New York in 1843, The Last Thing Mary Saw is an austere period piece that revolves around Mary (Stefanie Scott), a farm girl who falls foul of the community’s religious elders after falling in love with family maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). The story is told in flashbacks, book-ended by a sequence in which a now blinded Mary recounts her experiences while on trial for her mother’s (Judith Roberts) death.
Cinematographer David Kruta and production designer Charlie “Chaspooley” Robinson skillfully inject the film with the proper period solemnity and oppressive claustrophobia it requires. The Barry Lyndon-esque reliance on natural and candle light complements the story extremely effectively. Any fleeting glimpses of Mary and Eleanor’s relationship that we do get feel stolen and intimate, while the craggy, disapproving faces of the community elders loom from the chiaroscuro menacingly. The production design is minimal and unobtrusive, but there are enough authentic touches to maintain a decent level of immersion.
Oppressive silence is both a motif and a theme here, as the already sparse dialogue disappears almost completely due to a family tradition in the final acts of the film. This is a neat stylistic choice that plays out well. It not only heightens some of the tension but also implies that violence and repression are fostered by a refusal to acknowledge or speak out about what is happening. However, with dialogue used so sparingly, deficiencies in that department become more glaring. For the matriarch to speak in fire and brimstone pronouncements is appropriate, but with seemingly everyone speaking only in a gloom-laden, overwritten manner, the end result is stagey and lacks realism. Ultimately, the film is at its best in these silent stretches, with the actors able to convey far more emotion with their looks and glares than can be wrung from the script.
The performances from Stefanie Scott and Isabelle Fuhrman are both strong, with their furtive relationship feeling believable and grounded. However, writer and director Edoardo Vitaletti chooses to start our story after their relationship has been discovered, while they are being discussed and punished by their repressive religious household.
Although it might have been interesting to see their relationship blossom from the beginning, this decision points to Vialetti’s desire to get as quickly as possible into his exploration of weighty themes around religion, paranoia, misogyny and oppression. It’s a worthy goal, but occasionally comes at the expense of telling the more human stories that would make the tale accessible. As a result, the tone of the film is brooding, cold and overly self-serious. It’s a stark narrative broken up by chapters with ominous titles like “The Temple of Earthly Desires” and “A Monstrous Birth”.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is certain to invite comparison with Robert Eggers‘ The VVitch, a film that offset its grim setting with occasional touches of playfulness and warmth. By contrast, Vialetti’s offering is relentlessly opressive, and likely to alienate audiences with its po-facedness, which can border on the monotonous.
The film’s most compelling scenes come courtesy of its twin antagonists. The Matriarch, played by Judith Roberts, is sinister and controlling. Her baleful influence and fire-and-brimstone puritanism hang heavy over the family. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure listed as ‘The Intruder’ (Rory Culkin) limps from the forest to bring violence to the house. His shadowy, birth-marked face concealed by black rags, Culkin’s performance is brief but arresting, and the mystery that surrounds his character is engrossing.
These twin figures seem to usher in the more supernatural plot elements, which are subtle and understated until the violence of the final act. The whole film is effectively pregnant with the promise of violence to come. When it finally does arrive, it is shocking and effective, despite being fairly restrained. Similarly, the supernatural scenes are all the more chilling for their sparsity.
All in all, The Last Thing Mary Saw is an atmospheric period drama with a stellar cast of horror veterans. Director Edoardo Vitaletti has put in a very solid first outing here, but it’s a project aimed more at the head than the heart. Eager to explore complex and significant themes, the film veers too often into territory that is self-serious and uninviting. Meanwhile, it leaves behind the more human aspects of its story that would make it truly compelling. Among the recent trend for religious-themed period horror, this film is unlikely to make serious waves, but remains a commendable entry into the sub-genre.