Eye of the Beholder
Screenplay : Stephan Elliott (based on the novel by Marc Behm)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Ewan McGregor (The Eye), Ashley Judd (Joanna Eris), Patrick Bergin (Alex Leonard), k.d. lang (Hilary), Jason Priestley (Gary), Geneviève Bujold (Dr. Brault), Charles Powell (Owen)
Look high and low, but you are unlikely to find a more bizarre, disjointed, and utterly aimless film in recent months than Stephan Elliott's horribly misguided psycho-noir "Eye of the Beholder."
It has the distinctly flat tone and vaguely surrealistic feel of a pretentious European art film from the mid-1970s, with about the same disregard for character motivation or basic plot explication. If there were something deeper to the film than its surface, or if it truly broke new cinematic ground, its lapses in logic and characterization might be forgiven. Unfortunately, this isn't the case, and it ends up as a clumsy mix of film noir and the serial killer genre, with some surveillance paranoia and Freudian psychology thrown in for good measure.
Ewan McGregor stars as the Eye, a nameless surveillance expert working for the British Embassy in Washington, DC. While on an assignment for one of his superiors, he witnesses a brutal murder committed by a beautiful young woman named Joanna Eris (Ashely Judd). It turns out that Joanna is a serial killer who preys on men and then, once the murder has been committed, breaks down crying about her lost father. Something about this situation strikes a chord in the Eye, and he falls in love and spends the rest of the film silently tracking this female predator all across the United States for no particular reason other than to satiate his own inexplicable obsession.
There are probably all kinds of deep-seated psychological explanations for the Eye's loving devotion to a tormented woman like Joanna, but none of it comes out clearly in the film. Perhaps it has something to do with the Eye's young daughter who was taken away from him at the same time he lost his wife (once again, these are aspects of his character that are never fully explained). The Eye is so haunted by his missing daughter that he imagines her as a kind of ghost who follows him around on his assignments. So real is her presence that he carries on conversations with her, and it isn't until several minutes into her first scene that we realize the young daughter is, in fact, an apparition in his mind. But, like so much of the film, this rather bizarre, almost supernatural element is never fully explored and, quite irritatingly, is dropped half-way through the film.
"Eye of the Beholder" was based on a critically acclaimed 1980 novel by Marc Behm that has achieved something of a cult status over the years. It was also the basis of "Mortelle randonnée," a French film noir directed by Claude Miller. The new adaptation was written and directed by Stephan Elliott, who achieved notable success with the unlikely drag-queen comedy "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" in 1994.
Elliott seems to have gotten in over his head with "Eye of the Beholder," as the finished product is unfocused and seems fundamentally confused in almost every aspect. Simply put, it doesn't really make sense, and it's hard to tell whether this is a basic flaw in Elliott's script, or whether the film was botched in the editing room. Probably both.
There are a few stark and memorable scenes, especially a particularly unnerving sequence that features Jason Priestly as a bleach-blond junkie would-be rapist who comes close to killing Joanna before the Eye intervenes in his increasing capacity as her guardian angel. But, then there are scenes that are downright ludicrous, such as the numerous times when the Eye is on crowded airplanes or in train stations downloading top secret information on a laptop computer that everyone within ten feet of him can see. Also, for a film that is about a high-tech surveillance expert, the Eye's technology is almost laughably antiquated. His idea of covert spying is standing on a balcony with a giant camera/telescope the size of his arm. "The Blair Witch Project" was filmed with more covert equipment.
However, of the film's numerous failings, the most significant one is at the very core of the main character. Essentially, the Eye's reasoning for following and protecting Joanna is never adequately explained, which leaves the audience in the uncomfortable and unfair position of trying to identify with either (a) a character who simply does not make sense, or (b) a character with no recognizable sense of morality (after all, he could stop her at any time, but he allows her to go on killing and, in his own pathetic efforts to help her, ends up causing death himself). Ewan McGregor, who is usually a dynamic film presence, does nothing to help the cause. His Eye is a dull character who eventually does so many misguided deeds in his attempt to save Judd from being caught by the authorities, that he erases any potential sympathies we might have.
Ashley Judd doesn't fare much better. Although she changes her name, hair style, and wardrobe at least a dozen times, she never comes across as the kind of chameleon who could evade the police for so long (especially when she's so obvious with her crimes). Even at the end of the film when she has assumed the low-key role of a diner waitress, she looks like a glamorous movie star trying to appear frumpy. Her tousled hair is messy in a way that only a professional hairstylist could achieve.
It's understandable why Judd was selected for this role--she can be cute and sexy and dangerous all at the same time, which is exactly what the role requires. Unfortunately, Elliott's script doesn't give her much to work with, and even though her character is allowed the most in terms of motivation (it all has something to do with a father who deserted her ...), she never truly comes alive as someone to either love or fear (or both). Somehow her hard-knock life is supposed to evoke our sympathies and help us understand why Eye would fall in love with her, but like so much of the film, it is still woefully inadequate.
©2000 James Kendrick