God creates enemies in order to perform His good.
The line between God and Satan is almost non-existent when you really think about it considering they are two sides of the same coin. The former might be worse in the long run too since He not only created the latter, but also sits by while His followers use the Devil as their excuse to commit heinous crimes. God-fearing men and women have spent millennia declaring Satan’s influence as the reason they must cleanse the world of evil without ever having the self-awareness to realize their actions have been and will always be more insidious and viler in nature. It’s God’s flock that wields fear to maintain power. It’s God’s flock that believes they can do whatever they want to fulfill their definition of His will—including murder.
Where then does the hatred stem from in writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti‘s feature film debut The Last Thing Mary Saw? Could the Southold, New York family, circa 1843, at its center have turned a blind eye to what they saw blossoming between their Mary (Stefanie Scott) and the maid (Isabelle Fuhrman‘s Eleanor)? What real harm was coming of it at a time where isolation was a feature of life? The romance wasn’t publicized. Guests weren’t being brought in only to leave scandalized. It was simply love. But it had also gone on too long where Mary’s parents (Michael Laurence‘s Randolph and Carolyn McCormick‘s Agnes) were concerned. Their fear of damnation because of such “unholy indiscretion” forces them to seek guidance from her maliciously pious mother (Judith Roberts).
The result is that same aging matriarch’s murder and an inquiry placing blame upon Mary’s feet. We enter the story as she’s being interviewed by the local interrogator (Daniel Pearce) to put the pieces together of what happened. The young woman is now blindfolded with red rivers of blood caked under her eyes as though tears. His hope is to better understand her motives as well as the role Satan played. Was Mary possessed? Did part of the impetus behind the crime come from a small book of blasphemy he now holds in his hands? And where do rubber-stamping her inevitable execution and his curiosity towards the tale she’s about to tell ultimately diverge? Her words were never going to sway him. He simply needed to hear them.
Vitaletti therefore progresses through three chapters mimicking the titles of short, poem-like passages from that book. In them we learn of this self-proclaimed “righteous” family’s cruelty as a means towards control under the auspices of divinity. They believe themselves entitled to everything they have as strongly as they believe those without are entitled to the pain they endure. As such, those in their employ are treated like property. It’s not enough to let one go when they fail to live up to expectations. They’d rather wield their desires through punishment and tell themselves they are doing God’s work where it comes to reeducating those who’ve strayed from His path. Hence why their guard (P.J. Sosko‘s Theodore) walks with a limp and why Eleanor can’t just be sent away.
Each character is soon brought into focus from Agnes’ brother (Tommy Buck), sister-in-law (Dawn McGee‘s Ann), and nephew (Shane Coffey) arriving with the potential to take Eleanor off their hands (if her attitude can be “corrected” by long stretches kneeling on rice while reciting prayers) to Mary’s younger brother Matthew (Elijah Rayman) and his penchant for spying that can’t help but risk her getting into more trouble. Add Theodore’s role as confidant and kindred spirit (for a price) insofar as harboring no love for Mary’s family and Roberts’ matriarch possessing a supernatural air about her that would make any sane person think was the Devil no matter how loudly she declares the opposite and things devolve fast. Utilizing torture as rehabilitation only results in one thing, though: death.
What proves most intriguing (and never gets explained), however, are the origins of that small book. It’s soon revealed that Randolph was its original owner and under the belief that it somehow might prove prophetic in its depiction of their family’s demise. Why he thinks that is unknown, but he might not be too far off in the assumption. Rather than be the product of demons or spirits, the evil it holds in its pages is that of man. See Rory Culkin‘s Intruder as a prime example. Born with a birthmark covering half his face, his mother was told to leave him to die. Instead of bringing solace, his being spared only wrought more pain. And now he seeks to pay it back in kind with zero remorse.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is thus populated by monsters everywhere we turn from abusers, rapists, snitches, and at least one unexplained entity who cannot be contextually considered anything but an angel no matter its horrific deeds (Satan was once too, after all). The only ones who aren’t are the two being vilified by the rest. That’s not to say Mary and Eleanor don’t partake in their own vicious means en route to securing their salvation, but at least they are acting out of desperation as opposed to sanctimony. Does anything they do get them closer to their survival? I’ll let the film answer. Just know that when a family deserves damnation, you can’t generally pick and choose its victims. Sometimes the land itself must be razed completely.
The acting is effective throughout and the period aesthetic stays true to a slow and quiet trajectory skewing more towards a menacing air than full-on suspense. Knowing the result (a blind Mary standing accused of killing her grandmother) helps in this regard because we’re less concerned with what happened than how (along with other revelations). Will God and Satan rear their heads? Will cruelty at the end of a smile find itself in the driver’s seat? Yes, no, and maybe. Vitaletti isn’t trying to spoon feed us a narrative with concrete details as much as reveal how our anxieties, fears, and rage can make us do things our brains must then quickly justify via fantasy. Whether vengeance, fate, or God was the cause, however, a grim outcome remains.
courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival