Ethics & Public Policy Center

Eye of the Beholder

Published in EPPC Online on January 1, 2000



Eye of the Beholder, written and directed by Stephan Elliott from a novel by Marc Behm is routine post-modern noir—which is to say that it has no interest in the kind of tight plotting or carefully built up motivation that characterized traditional film noir. Presumably the media sophisticates who patronize movies these days don’t care about any of that stuff. They are only interested in the images—many of them, in this case, high-tech surveillance images through which the renegade British intelligence agent known as “Eye” (Ewan MacGregor) observes the murders committed by the beautiful and mysterious Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd)—and of course the emotional posturing of the principal players.

For what else can you call it when the murderer’s modus operandi is to use her charms to seduce susceptible young men, strangers to herself, and then, at a moment when some tenderness might have been expected, stab them to death while crying: “Merry Christmas, daddy”? So ludicrously inadequate is this implied pseudo-psychology (Miss Eris as a small girl was abandoned by her father on Christmas Day) as an explanation for several grisly murders that it cannot possibly be offered to us out of mere incompetence on the part of Mr. Elliott. No, he must have intended so to affront the audience’s sense of plausibility and proportion. That’s what we get for our outdated, rationalist and reactionary expectation that movies should look just the tiniest bit like real life.

In a way this movie is just the opposite of a psychological thriller. Instead, that is, of working backward from the murders to their putative cause in the warped psyche of Miss Eris, Elliott is working forward from the moment of emotional deprivation, when the child is abandoned by her father, to a sort of revenge fantasy of the future/present that, like all fantasies, need have nothing to do with real life. This creative direction is made even more clear to us by the fact that Mr. Eye, whose real name is Stephen Wilson, is having fantasies of a complementary sort. His wife and daughter have disappeared under circumstances which are left deliberately vague but which have produced guilt feelings in him so severe that he is the victim of constant hallucinations of his child’s presence.

Nor is this phantasmal little girl, presumably about the age of Miss Eris when she was abandoned, content to sit silently by and look reproachfully at her negligent parent. She behaves like a perfect brat, as if she means to inspire not the guilt that Eye feels but a sense of relief that she has gone. Her real purpose is to goad him into indulging further his voyeuristic fascination with the beautiful murderess—“Stay with her, daddy; she’s just a little girl,” says the tyke untruthfully, perhaps so that in order to follow her he will forsake the rest of his life as he has presumably forsaken her. The forsaken life, such as it is, is symbolized by his devoted and motherly control officer in British intelligence who is played by the lesbian pop-star, K.D. Lang, in a particularly remarkable bit of miscasting.

But the killer, without even knowing of his existence, symbolically rejects him by taking up with a blind man (Patrick Bergin)—get it? “the Eye”?—who is the only one of her paramours she does not murder. So Eye murders him. Obviously these are very deep symbolic waters here, and Joanna’s abandonment fears are somehow assuaged by feeling unobserved—hardly a hopeful augury for Mr. Eye. This emotional tangle is finally resolved as Eye and Eris (Iris?) finally meet in person—instead of through the former’s telescopic lenses—and she makes an unsuccessful attempt on his life. Being the forgiving type, Eye rescues her from a car crash in a frozen lake and tenderly whispers: “I’m just a daddy who lost his little girl, and I guess you’re just a little girl who lost her daddy…I guess that’s it. End of story.”

So obviously is this not “it,” nor yet the “end of story” as advertised, that it comes to us as yet another slap in the face from the director/writer. In the end there is no story, only a bit of emotional self-indulgence that you would be well advised to stay away from.

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