Since Cinemascore began operation in 1979 only 19 films have received the lowest score. In this series I’ll be reviewing those 19 films. This week, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but audiences still have shit taste.
So What is it?
Eye Of The Beholder belongs to a genre that doesn’t exist. It’s a Neo-Noir, but unlike most Neo-Noirs it isn’t really a thriller or a mystery. It’s sort of a cautionary romance. Or maybe a tragic horror. What it reminds me of the most is a Daphne Du Maurier story. It’s melancholy and mysterious. Its characters are drawn towards their doom by impulses that they can’t understand and are powerless to refuse, until in the end they are consumed and destroyed by a fate they choose and deserve. And yet this fate is somehow sadder because it is deserved. Their tragedy was to be born. To be broken people. This movie did not make much money.
The plot follows Ewan McGregor as some sort of an intelligence officer, though his job seems to mostly be photographing rich people’s infidelities like any regular private dick. He lives a secluded solitary existence, the sort of way Harry Caul might live had he been a part of the Internet age. His clients and targets, his closest friends and co-workers, are all just images on a screen. Among his gadgets and gizmos he has a class photograph from a girls’ elementary school, and on the back his wife has scrawled, “guess which one is your daughter, asshole”. It’s an unconscionably cruel gesture, but the movie gives the subtle suggestion that McGregor had it coming. McGregor hallucinates his daughter, or at least the image he’s picked as his daughter, and interacts with her openly and publicly. She’s a fountain of bad advice, constantly urging him towards his darkest and most unhealthy desires. She is not his memory, but his demon.
McGregor is assigned a man to follow, and he follows him to a rendezvous with a beautiful woman. He sets up his cameras, expecting to catch the two sleeping together, but instead witnesses the woman murder the man, break into hysterics, and then comport herself and dispose of the body. While he knows he should report the crime, this woman looks like Ashley Judd circa 1999 and so a little murder is hardly a deal breaker. At the urging of his daughter/raging-id he begins to follow her.
Judd moves across America, city to city, killing men as she goes. Sometimes for money, sometimes out of self-defense. McGregor follows her, sometimes he aids her, sometimes he tries to stop her, always he watches her. The film is narratively propulsive, but the plot is hardly the point. A scene where Judd murders a threatening cop and must flee the city immediately is far less pivotal than a scene where Ewan McGregor stands in a dry tub and presses himself to the wall in order to be closer to Ashley Judd bathing on the other side. The film feels a bit like Brian De Palma directing The Virgin Suicides or perhaps it’s more like Sofia Coppola directing Body Double. It’s perversion without the playfulness, romanticism without the empathy.
We get a few slivers of backstory, and even these few scraps feel like a compromise. We learn that when Ashley Judd was a child, her father lost their home and abandoned her on the street. The film treats it more as a possibility than a fact. Like McGregor’s daughter, a memory that is shaped by the needs of the present rather than fidelity to the past. In the source novel, McGregor’s character is much older, and his fixation on the woman is very much as a replacement for his lost daughter (who would be the same age). But Ashley Judd is actually three years older than McGregor (old enough to play his mother by Hollywood standards), and her performance; mature, sophisticated, and world weary, contrasts against his character who is timid, and baby-faced, and unsure of himself. The relationship is much more difficult to pin down. She begins to represent all womanly things to him; mother, daughter, object of lust, and of fascination, of mystery, and danger, death and salvation. And if Ashley Judd is the Femme Fatale writ large, than McGregor is The Eye, a personification of masculine want stripped of any of its material, physical, or emotion value; the vast, lustful conspiracy that Judd must navigate on a daily basis.
Eventually the road of America ends in Alaska in a town too small for McGregor to remain unseen. The two finally meet, and one of them finally dies. It’s a sad ending. If the stalker and the serial killer can’t find any peace in this cold world, who can?
So Why the F?
When you look over the list of Cinemascore Fs, something odd will jump out at you. From 1979-1999 there wasn’t a single F issued. And then 18 over the next 12 years. 4 in 2000, alone. (Eye Of The Beholder is listed as a 1999 movie, but it didn’t hit American theaters until January of 2000). What happened? Did advertising suddenly get more misleading? No, misleading trailers have been a fixture of the movies for as long as there’s been movies. Maybe audiences have gotten harsher over the years. It would make sense that between Netflix and IMDB and Amazon and a million other services, people have become accustomed to giving out ratings that the average American might have been too polite to issue back in the innocent coke-fueled days of the 1980s. But you would expect a slightly more gradual change, and for that matter 2000 doesn’t make a lot of sense as a dividing line. So maybe the films really were that bad? The early 2000s were a pretty cinematically barren time, but they didn’t invent bad movies, and the ones that got dinged don’t stand out from the flops and failures of previous decades. Maybe Cinemascore hasn’t released an accurate list? Their database is difficult to search, you have to type in the name of each film you’re looking for individually, and if you type in “The Ring” instead of “Ring, The” you will befuddle their search engine. Furthermore, their commitment to providing accurate, reliable information is less robust than you might imagine. Even in the few months I’ve been covering this series they’ve changed their origin year from 1979 to 1978. But searching for notorious bombs brings up surprisingly positive grades, and while Google occasionally leads me to shorter lists, it hasn’t yet turned up anything from the twentieth century. No, what I think happened is that Cinemascore started juicing the numbers, knowing that giving out the occasional scarlet letter would generate some publicity. Hell, it got us talking about them.
Ok, so they juiced the numbers, why did Eye Of The Beholder get slammed instead of some other movie? All the usual reasons. Misleading trailer, unsympathetic leads, abrupt anti-climactic ending.
So Were they right?
The ending is a big problem. The characters are unsympathetic, and worse, they’re unknowable. A movie like In The Cut can end any number of ways, because the important thing is not the exact events of the story, but how our protagonist reacts to those events. But Eye Of The Beholder is not built on its characters’ psychologies. It is a strange story, about strange people, and its approach is often non-literal. It’s a parable, and the ending needs to define and contextualize the story. Beyond that, it’s just a poorly executed scene. In his director’s commentary, Stephan Elliot (Priscilla Queen Of The Desert) describes the climactic stunt work as one of those shots that they had one chance to get right and it just didn’t work. It’s sloppy and it adds to the rushed arbitrary feeling of the ending.
Having said that, although the film’s ending is its biggest detriment, it’s still basically functional, and everything leading up to it is incredible. The film is gorgeous, and fascinating, and it flows very smoothly from scene to scene and location to location. There’s a strange otherworldliness to it that, while clearly not for everyone, gives the film a woozie hypnotic quality that sinks into the soft part of your brain. Like the best of noir, this is a movie of suggestion and implication, of deep unknowable truths just outside of the frame.
The movie has aged better than it ever could have anticipated. The technology, though now obsolete, still feels accurate in the same way that the technology in The Conversation still feels right. In both cases there’s a patched together homemade quality to the tech that feels rooted in character in a way that doesn’t become dated. Particularly neat is a modified rifle McGregor has built, with a long range microphone as its barrel and a camera for a scope that takes pictures when you pull the trigger. Things like this feel symbolic more than practical, and are less anchored to any given time. The movie also makes heavy use of anachronisms, mostly in the ways that Ashley Judd’s fashion choices reflect the 1940s noirs the film is drawing from. With further years distance, the 90s fashions feel as distinct as the 40s, and it creates a sense of the film drifting through eras. The story becomes more abstracted and more emotional, not being tied to any single time or place.
But the way the film has aged best is in the way McGregor’s character creates idealized versions of the people in his life whom he observes, but never really interacts with and the way this allows him to delude himself, imagining relationships that do not exist and casting himself as a victim or hero in stories where his actual actions are far from pure. This is Internet noir, and even though the culture that it is commenting on hadn’t really formed yet, it’s remarkably insightful.
Next Time: Robert Altman and Richard Gere explain women to us.