Home invasion films such as Funny Games and The Strangers have confronted us with the very real possibility of the destruction of the domestic space through graphic violence. Blood splatters the walls, windows are shattered, women scream, and men gasp for breath as they try to defend what’s theirs to protect. But director Sara Summa wants to defy all we know about the violent home invasion film. In her feature film debut, The Last to See Them, Summa completely deconstructs the violent subgenre to create a film full of dread and melancholy.
The Last to See Them opens with title cards telling us that the Durati family—a father, mother, daughter, and son—were all murdered one night in 2012. As the title cards fade away, we are introduced to said family and their sunbleached Italian farm in the middle of nowhere. Each member of the family is given their own small narrative, whether it is daughter Dora’s (Barbara Verrastro) struggle about whether or not to stay with her boyfriend, son Matteo’s (Pasquale Lioi) strange homicidal behavior towards the farm kittens, father Renzo’s (Canio Lancellotti) secretive life insurance policy, or mother Alice’s (Donatella Viola) depression. This is a deeply dysfunctional family where Dora must take care of everyone because her own mother is struggling with her health. She is pushed into a heteronormative, patriarchal box by her religious father. This could be a run-of-the-mill family drama. But Summa expertly keeps it from veering into that territory.
Dread creeps into every corner of this film as Summa cuts to POV shots of someone, who we slowly realize is the killer, driving down sun-soaked roads towards the Durati family’s house. The audience knows something horrific is going to happen to this family but there is nothing we can do. Every conflict, every insecurity, every action that happens on this small farm is absolutely futile. But the Duratis don’t know that. All we can do is watch with fear in our eyes as the killer gets ever closer to this unsuspecting group. That dress Dora is designing won’t ever be worn. That chest Matteo is creating won’t ever be finished. Renzo and Alice will never see their daughter married. The Last to Know Them offers a new look at the characters we typically see murdered on screen; she gives them lives, back stories, and secrets that make them more relatable, and makes their eventual deaths seem more meaningful.
Despite our investment and fear for this family, each actor performs their role with such disinterest that this almost seems like a Yorgos Lanthimos film. Everyone seems so detached from the world around them, existing only in their own little bubbles that never pop no matter how many times the family members collide. They all float through this dream-like setting with their own agendas, never really connecting with one another, which makes their inevitable murders all the more tragic. The last words they say to each other are utterly meaningless and careless. They are just half-hearted good nights or disgusted remarks often exchanged between sister and brother. With every meaningless good bye, we know that these are their last words. It begs the question: If the Duratis knew that these were their last words, would they say something different?
The Last to See Them will knock the air out of your lungs. It won’t be for everyone with its slow plot where nothing really seems to happen. But for some, like me, it will hit you in the stomach like a wrecking ball. As the final title cards matter-of-factly document the murders, the entire film’s events seem to tumble on your head like a landslide of emotions. Summa does not need to show blood and guts to deliver her emotional impact. Rather, she shows her characters as regular people, going through their daily lives and coping with dysfunctionality. She humanizes these people, making you care for them, or despise them, without having to show their deaths. Summa creates a film about the calm before a murderous storm, interrogating our need for violence and experimenting with what a horror film narrative can look like.