By: Emily von Seele
In The Last Thing Mary Saw, the shadow of religion looms large, and living beneath it is almost suffocating. Set in rural New York in the 1840s, Mary (Stefanie Scott) is part of a well-off Calvinist family. Religion is an integral part of her life, providing a rigid set of rules by which she must abide. Her family demands nothing short of obedience, both to them and the Church. There is little room within this space for personal satisfaction or growth.
In fact, the only real happiness that Mary finds is in the time that she spends with the family’s maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). The pair often catch each other’s eye from across the room and find quiet moments to sneak away together under cover of darkness. Somehow, despite living under the iron fist of religious propriety, their love blossoms. Together, they find a sense of peace. Apart, only darkness.
The family is horrified and distressed when they discover the time the pair have been spending together, believing that Mary risks her immortal soul through her abhorrent behavior. They repeatedly subject the girls to brutal punishments and urge them toward prayer. Mary’s father even goes so far as to suggest that Eleanor be sent to live with his brother on the neighboring farm, in order to prevent any further contact.
The girls, meanwhile, are not dissuaded. Instead, they begin planning and plotting a way off the farm and into the world on their own, where they will no longer be under the watchful eye of Mary’s family and the unflinching eye of God.
The film doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table; we’ve seen dramas and horror films tell the stories of forbidden queer romances before, but it’s the way that this film goes about it that makes it unique. The way it fits all of the pieces together and some of the turns this story takes make it stand apart from the familiar. It marries the horrors of humanity with the horrors of the supernatural in an interesting way, and creates tension in unexpected places.
The film also flirts with a bit of reality vs. fiction and the way the two can melt together. Without giving too much away, there is a book of stories that makes an appearance several times over the course of our tale. At first, it seems perfectly innocent, but over time, it begins to overlap more and more with what Mary and Eleanor are experiencing in that house.
The look of the film goes a long way in setting the stage. Director Edoardo Vitaletti and his team use light and dark to frame their scenes and create tension within the film. Most of this story takes place at night, in dimly lit rooms illuminated by candlelight. The flames cast dark and foreboding shadows, and flicker against the walls, bathing the central space in hues of orange and gold. Staring at the screen makes you feel like you’re halfway into autumn and anything could be lurking in the woods outside your house. It definitely creates the feeling of safe and unsafe spaces, though which is which depends entirely on the scene.
The Last Thing Mary Saw doesn’t completely hit the mark, but it does enough things right that it will have you drawn in through the final frame. There is a lot of mystery at play in this one and, overall, it’s a satisfying watch.