The Eyes of My Mother fwins, by my count, two superlatives for itself among recent American horror films. It is, on the one hand, the most beautiful such movie in an inordinately long time - long enough that I gave up trying to figure out when. That's selling it a bit short, actually: it's also the most beautiful American movie of 2016. In fact, I think that, if I were being flagrantly uncautious (and you would probably also have to get me incredibly drunk), I might go ahead and call it the most beautiful American movie since The Tree of Life. So it's a good thing that I'm prone to caution.

That's the easy sell. The hard sell is that The Eyes of My Mother is the most brutal American horror film in every bit as long or even longer, brutal up at the level of the French Extremism films, or the roughest Asian horror pictures of the last 15-odd years. Not because it is violent and gory - it is violent enough, but not disproportionately so. It's got nothing on any of the Saw films, or even a particularly hardcore war movie. Its brutality comes at a deeper level, a brutality of the soul. What we have here is a film in the tradition of Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: a plunge into the headspace of a killer entirely divorced from human morality asking us to do very little other than soak up the alien monstrosity as writer-director Nicolas Pesce slows the action to an imperceptible crawl, the better to linger on his protagonist with suffocating closeness. In this case, that protagonist is a woman, a change that ends up altering very little in the end; it doesn't even diminish the tinge of sexual perversion to the killings common to movies about male serial killers (indeed, one particular death is staged to resemble a love scene much more than a murder).

Beauty and savagery are by and large the whole of what the film offers; certainly, they are its two most salient characteristics. This is in no way incidental, and indeed, that's what makes this meaningfully different than Henry and its ilk. For that film is overwhelming in its grotty, artless realism: it is punishingly horrifying because of the sense of a banal real-world setting. There's not one frame of The Eyes of My Mother that evokes the real world. For one thing, it has been shot by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein entirely in black-and-white, emphasis on the black: this is a movie in which entire epic-length single-take scenes are lit with just a single side light providing a sliver of silhoutte to the side of the characters, only a trivially useful amount of illumination on their faces. Not everything is like that, of course, though it is an exceptionally dark movie throughout; sometimes, though, Kuperstein shapes that darkness with sufficiently light to give it clear texture and edges. Anyway, irrespective of what the film depicts, it is heart-stoppingly gorgeous, with many striking compositions right from the very opening pair of images (a shot through the windshield of a truck, from the passenger side, with the metalwork of the window forming a series of internal frames that wonderfully emphasise the distance of the space outside; and then a cut to a top-down view of the road in front of the truck, a thick line of slate grey with the onscreen humans reduced to the status of abstract shapes), to go along with the dramatic and intensely dour lighting. It's not just pretty; it is pretty in a menacing, grave way.

More to the point, the film's beauty is ironically contrasted with violence and death throughout. I am unsure whether the beauty undercuts the horror, or if it's the other way around. Anyway, this is the story of little Francisca (Olivia Bond), who lives on a farm with her father (Paul Nazak) and Portuguese immigrant mother (Diana Agostini). Francisca's mother is also a surgeon, and with the help of a dead cow's head, teaches the girl all about the structure of eyes, in an exquisitely unnerving sequence that without hesitation or shame evokes Un chien andalou, and pushes all the way through horror into poetry. All is fine on the farm, until the day that a twitchy salesman named Charlie (Will Brill) shows up to ask to use the bathroom, and then kill Francisca's mother, in an unbearably casual, disaffected sequence. Francisca's father quickly takes his revenge on Charlie, blinding him and cutting out his tongue, and then the father and daughter chain the killer up in their barn. Years later, Francisca grows up (and is played by Kika Magalhaes), and is about as well-adjusted as you'd expect. We have not, impressively, seen the most disturbing stuff that the film has to offer.

It's no surprise that The Eyes of My Mother has been beset with polarised reviews since its bow at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; honestly, for all that I more or less love it, I can't pretend that it's not a provocation, pretty much from the first scene to the last. The barely-detectable tripartite plot (each third a perverse parody of a different familial relationship) is a litany of powerfully disturbing moments, not all of which involving killing - the matter of the father's body after he dies of natural causes is entirely upsetting even without any criminality, or anything you can definitively call immorality. It is certainly not an insightful look into the situation of Portuguese immigrants and their families, and only if you squint and hold it at an angle and decide that you're going to meet the film about nine-tenths of the way does the film offer up any kind of statement on gender. Which is honestly kind of baffling, given how in-your face gender would appear to be throughout every single step of the way through the plot.

It's not even, really, a diagnosis of a social evil like Henry; Francisca isn't a real-world killer, but some kind of fairy tale ghoul. Besides, the close identification Pesce encourages with her ends up making her much more of a sad figure, who was helpless to avoid being profoundly fucked up by all the godawful things that happened in her youth, than a terrifyingly nihilistic one (though there isn't any point at which she seems more than glancingly explicable; a sympathetic portrayal of pure evil this may be, but pure evil is still in play). It is, insofar as it is anything positive - and I absolutely think it is, while also knowing full well that most of the people I recommend this movie to will hate me for it - The Eyes of My Mother is a predominately experiential film, designed to trigger a strong emotional response, and nobody can rightfully deny that it does so, not even the most hostile reviewers. Revulsion is a strong response, after all.

But no, not much for plot: very little happens, and it happens slowly, and it happens to characters who are portrayed with a listlessness that suggests that Pesce was very good about studying his Bresson. All the things that are great about the film are sensory in nature: the visceral, instinctive response to the violence, which is made that much stronger by the way the beautiful imagery tells us to feel soothed and dazzled; Ariel Loh's score floats hauntingly apart from the film, scuttling our attempts to make some kind of sense of the material by so pointedly depriving the soundscape of any emotional cues or other anchors. It's not quite like anything I've ever seen: something like the ambiguous French, Italian, and Spanish horror of the 1970s but in a aesthetic idiom that owes more to the ultra-arty slow cinema style (especially Tarr Béla, given the severity of the black-and-white cinematography). Slow it is indeed; at only 76 minutes, the film crawls by over what feels like a real-time depiction of several years of Francisca's life. All the better to let us feel trapped within her presence, caught between the humanity we know and love and the perversion of humanity that's all she's left with inside her ghost-haunted mind. This is in no way an entertaining movie, and in most ways that count it's extraordinarily unpleasant, but holy hell, is it ever a great achievement, and I am terribly eager to see where its creators head next.