Sony // 1999 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // May 22nd, 2000
If you thought Eye of the Beholder was a sexy thriller worthy of your time, then you must have seen the trailer. Whoever created it should win an award, because the real movie is a steaming pile of cinematic offal.
"The Eye" (Ewan McGregor) is some sort of British spy who specializes in covert surveillance, but his exact job (and the reason he's spying on people in the United States) are never made quite clear. His contact at the British Consulate in Washington, D.C., Hilary (k.d. lang) is protective of "the Eye," and for good reason. He is teetering on the edge of sanity (or maybe he's already insane), due largely to his wife's recent decision to take their daughter and vanish. Naturally, when he is assigned to investigate a potential blackmailer, Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd), not only does he stand idly by when she viciously kills her target, but also "the Eye" becomes obsessively enamored with her. He begins to follow her from city to city, trying to find out more and more about her even as she leaves a trail of corpses behind her. "The Eye" is so obsessed that he slips in after the massacres to clean up the telltale clues of her guilt.
During one of her post-massacre escapes, Joanna has a chance meeting with blind, sophisticated wine merchant Alex Leonard (Patrick Bergen) and the two of them seem to hit it off. Matters of the heart progress to the point of matrimony, much to the consternation of "the Eye," who has by now discovered the sad, sordid tale of Joanna's background. He manages to track down Joanna's old probation officer, Dr. Brault (Genevieve Bujold), who seems to have done her own part to warp Joanna into the killer she has become.
"The Eye" is so upset by the impending loss of "his" Joanna that he takes action to ensure that the inevitable marriage is avoided, which in turn causes Joanna to flee into the inhospitable, lonely terrain of the Western U.S. She runs across a creepy predator (Jason Priestly), whose assault upon Joanna is terminated by the ever-watchful "Eye," yet her protector quickly retreats back into the shadows to maintain his watch. Police begin to draw close to Joanna, but her wiles and "the Eye" ensure she lives to escape their grasp.
This time in the middle of snowy Alaska, Joanna and "the Eye" come together for the last act. He finally tries to introduce himself and create a relationship, but here the story takes a bizarre turn that I wish I could adequately explain. Some tears, a gunshot, and a car chase lead to a final dramatic (yet ambiguous) scene.
As one would expect from a modern release, the anamorphic video transfer is near perfect. The picture is crisp and clean, with accurate fleshtones, decent shadow detail, and solid blacks. The palette of Eye of the Beholder is not very vibrant, so you won't see a lot of deeply saturated colors, but all in all, a pleasing video display.
The audio is not without its flaws and surprises. For significant stretches of the movie, I resorted to turning on the subtitles to understand the dialogue rather than boost the volume and get blasted out of my seat when the soundtrack kicks into a higher gear. The rest is a fairly unremarkable 5.1 mix, except that I was pleasantly taken aback by some of the very low bass punch in the score.
The extra content is a basic yet solid package. The advantage of the commentary track is that writer/director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) has not yet become jaded by Hollywood, so he has a lot to say. He talks from start to finish with barely a pause about his influences, the long process of getting this "labor of love" to the screen, and about all of the components that he assembled into the final product (such as casting, locations, cinematography, music, and so on). I certainly understand Eye of the Beholder better, even though I still do not care for it. Talent files for the writer/director and the main actors (and Jason Priestley) and two trailers (for this film and The Pillow Book, another early Ewan McGregor film) round out the on-disc content. The promised production notes are found in the two-page color booklet tucked into the preferred Amaray keep case.
The director candidly admits in the commentary that this is an amoral movie, and this is very true. However, this is not the worst offense that a movie can commit. Eye of the Beholder goes beyond, into far worse territory, by being a slow, tedious, boring, confusing amoral movie. I have to admit that I am not one who tends to pick apart the symbolic minutiae of a film, particularly on a first viewing. If it's not entertaining in some fashion, who gives a rat's behind about the symbolism of certain recurrent images, or how a shot is a homage to a more famous director?
Since I am not an amoral person, I simply fail to understand how director Stephan Elliott expects me to "fall in love" with Ashley Judd's homicidal character by sketching out a horrible childhood. I can understand her background, even feel pity for her, but she still chooses to murder, over and over again, which makes it impossible to really care for her. Worse is the journey of "the Eye," who is so enamored of this stranger that not only does he become complicit in her crimes by his cover-ups, he goes even further, destroying the latent sympathy that you might feel for him. A pox on both their houses!
If that were not enough, the film falls totally flat by its inability to build and maintain dramatic tension. As odd as it may sound, both the slothful pace of the story and the rapid-fire change of setting from city to city left me alternately bored and confused, rather than stimulated and intrigued. I found myself further detached from Eye of the Beholder thanks to a script that leaves gaping holes in the plot (like where that odd NYPD detective appears for no comprehensible reason and leaves as quickly) and gets facts about the United States flat wrong. (Memo to Stephan Elliott: there is no such thing as the "federal police," and even I know that Chicago police cars don't use that ugly red-orange paint scheme.) Apparently the authorities are looking for Joanna, but I haven't a clue whether it was for one of the murders in the film, some past felony, or maybe overdue library books.
Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine, Star Wars: Episode I) does not do his best here, playing "the Eye" with a flat affect, failing to convince us of the emotional context for the genesis and course of the character's obsession. His character is quite apparent in his withdrawal from the world and preference for the impersonal distance of electronic spycraft, but this character trait is simply presented and not explained. "The Eye" was apparently withdrawn when his wife and child left him, so their departure cannot explain his detachment.
Ashley Judd (Heat, Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy) fares somewhat better, playing her femme fatale scenes for all they are worth, but even her best efforts can't make us feel too much sympathy. Patrick Bergen (Sleeping With the Enemy, Patriot Games) is perhaps the best actor in Eye of the Beholder in a smaller role, quite convincing and sympathetic as the lonely wine maker who falls for Joanna. k.d. lang needs more acting lessons, and I still don't quite know what to make of Genevieve Bujold (Tightrope, Dead Ringers) here. Jason Priestley (Tombstone) tries to live up to the menacing potential of his role, but he's still got too much 90210 in him. Keep trying, Jason.
I find it hard to fathom the audience for Eye of the Beholder. Perhaps those people interested in the technique and style of filmmaking will find something of interest here, or those whose own sense of morality has been surgically removed? I can't recommend a rental, what with many more deserving discs out there, but if for some reason you insist on seeing the film and against all reason want to buy it, at least this is a decent disc and reasonably priced ($25).
The film and its creators are justly sentenced to continued obscurity. Columbia is acquitted for its production efforts, which are sadly wasted on a movie hardly worth its efforts.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary Track
* Production Notes
* Talent Files
* Theatrical Trailers