When it comes to the film Eyes Wide Shut, I know that I’m often in the minority when I condemn it as being far and away the worst film Stanley Kubrick ever directed. Since I’m obviously writing this short review over sixteen years after the movie came out, I have had lots of time to process the film, and decide exactly what it is I don’t like about the film. About three months ago, I sat down and attempted to watch the film for the first times since I saw it in the theatre. I only made it about halfway through, before I had to turn it off. So truthfully, I have only seen this film one and a half times, but it was seared into my memory, and because I often have a photographic memory with work I judge harshly and have a strong negative response to. I know that many people are quite fond of the film, and that although my opinion aligns more closely with the harsh criticism directed its way by film critics and the media, there are many fans who have difficulty finding any fault with a Kubrick film.I decided to write this brief review today, as a response to the article, Be Thankful For Eyes Wide Shut by Scott Wampler, and posted by my friend, Matthew Constantine on his Facebook page. My friend Joe Vincent had also liked the article, and although I have great respect for their opinions about movies, art, and culture, I knew I had to at least make an impassioned and reasoned argument AGAINST Eyes Wide Shut. As you can read in the article above, the writer takes great pains to praise the film, and make sure we understand it should be considered amongst his best. That rather than criticize the film, we should be thankful we ever got it. Especially considering Kubrick died a week after delivering the final cut. I have a very personal and visceral aversion to this film, and feel compelled to share my thoughts about the movie. I had problems with the article, and thought it was poorly written at times and did nothing to convince me to reconsider my views on Eyes Wide Shut. The writer felt young, and at times, more than a little wet behind the years. I seem to recall him mentioning being a teenager and how blessed he feels to have seen the movie on opening night. It was certainly his last, but perhaps also his first Kubrick opening. Like him, I also saw this movie opening night, but I was at the premiere, in Hollywood, while living in LA. Going into the film, I was a very big Kubrick fan, but coming out, I was severely disappointed and left with a terrible taste in my mouth.
The other reality of the film is that this is a frightfully chilly and uninviting world. The characters were cold, and kept at a distance, alienating them from the viewer, and not allowing us access to anyone’s emotions, or engendering empathy in the viewers. At the holiday party, the first time we meet Sydney Pollack’s character, Victor Ziegler, he is soliciting Tom Cruise’s character, Dr. Harford’s help, to revive a naked and bleeding hooker, who just had some kind of sexual relations with Ziegler, and as well as overdosed on a mix of drugs. He naturally has a wife, and she’s presumably somewhere else in the homeI This is HIS holiday party, and he’s absent from his guests, doing drugs and banging a hooker. When she seems to be in bad shape, Ziegler is dismissive and talks of her like trash. He flops her body around like she was a rag doll, taking no care with her in the slightest. He just wants her out of there. This is our first introduction to this large character, and he is instantly unlikable. You can’t help but root for the girl. Dr. Harford is gentler with her, but still rather callous and indelicate. These are not the loving hands of a gentle family doctor, but a man pulled away from a party by one of his patients, to revive a hooker who ODed on a speedball, and to make sure they don’t have a dead hooker on their hands. Her nudity throughout the season is uncomfortable, and we the viewer feels culpable in their mistreatment of the girl. Dr. Harford is a party to all this, and becomes somewhat unsympathetic early on. As the film goes on, we meet more people who feel cold and detached. The characters are simply too dead inside or corrupt with money or power. It’s hard to care for these characters, and without empathy, it was hard for me to care whether any of them lived or died. The film was frigid throughout. So no, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the subject matter, but not because it “challenged me” and “made me uncomfortable” — feelings he takes pains to point out that he enjoys in movies, but wildly assumes viewers new to Kubrick must not. I enjoy movies that challenge me as well, but only good movies, and not uneven ones. This film was very uneven, and although it had some great themes and motifs that pulled it together, it was cohesive as a whole. Wampler’s statement is reductive and a fallacy, because it implies that the only reason we could have to not enjoy the movie, was because of the off-putting plot.
The Achilles heel of Eyes Wide Shut is that it creates all this film noir, secret sex society intrigue and possible murder plot line, but then throws in all these red herrings and seeming non sequiturs. But it seems it’s all just widow dressing, because very little of it actually goes anywhere. It seems to have elements of the quirky, dark, and menacing atmosphere of a David Lynch film, or specifically, a show like Twin Peaks. Yet those shows went somewhere, and although they had their fair share of red herrings and misdirection, they also pursued the clues and leads they had dropped along the way. EWS has many scenes and unique characters that often stand out, but rarely serve practical and dramaturgical purposes. They are texture, and are included in order to establish mood and atmosphere. They’re also oddball and memorable characters, who sometimes provide levity and entertainment.
After a fight about their faithfulness to each other early in the film, Bill is then called by the daughter of a patient who has just died; he then heads over to her place. In her pain, Marion Nathanson impulsively kisses him and says she loves him. Putting her off before her fiance Carl arrives, Bill takes a walk. He meets a prostitute named Domino and goes to her apartment. Alice phones just as Domino begins to kiss Bill, after which he calls off the awkward encounter. Early on, we see Dr. Harford is wandering and lost, and seems to be looking for love, lust, affection, or something, in the arms of other women, He seems to be in search of anonymous lovers — perhaps in order to keep love out of the equation.
After learning from Nick, the piano player, about the costume party, he gets the password, and goes to a shop to rent a costume, The scene in the costume shop is surreal and absurd, starting with the owner, Mr. Milich, and his daughter, played by oversexed and underdressed Leelee Sobieski, who appears to be getting intimate with two Japanese men in the back, but almost to her delight and with her overjoyed permission. Her father gets angry at the indecency, and yells at the group. The scene is nearly slapstick absurdism, and could easily have come out of a Beckett, Ionesco, or Jean Genet play.
After Bill arrives at the mansion, and uses the password to get in, he is wandering around the large rooms, when he is approached by a woman. Although he is masked, the woman takes Bill aside and warns him he does not belong there, insisting he is in terrible danger. She is then whisked away by someone else. Bill walks through the rooms, and witnesses several acts of sex, with various people engaging, and others watching, Finding himself in the ritual room, Bill is approached by an imposing Master of Ceremonies, and asks him a question about a second password. Bill says he has forgotten. The Master of Ceremonies insists that Bill “kindly remove his mask”, then his clothes. The masked woman who had tried to warn Bill now intervenes and insists that she be punished instead of him. Bill is ushered from the mansion and warned not to tell anyone about what happened there.
The next morning, Bill goes to Nick’s hotel, where the desk clerk (Alan Cumming) tells Bill that a bruised and frightened Nick checked out a few hours earlier after returning with two large, dangerous-looking men. Nick tried to pass an envelope to the clerk when they were leaving, but it was intercepted, and Nick was driven away by the two men. The scene could have easily been in a film noir from the late ’40s or ’50s. The circumstances, with the bruises, the two big defensive lineman-sized goons, and the desperate letter he was trying to pass, are all familiar tropes in these kind of gangster flicks.
The next we hear of Nick is when Bill is summoned by Ziegler to discuss the events of the last few days. We learn that Ziegler was one of the sex participants, and that he had Bill followed, and that the society’s warnings were meant to scare him, but that the society is capable of acting on their threats, telling Bill: “If I told you their names, I don’t think you’d sleep so well”. Bill asks about the death of Mandy — the prostitute from the beginning of the film, who it turns out, was the masked woman at the party who’d “sacrificed” herself to prevent Bill’s punishment. Ziegler insists that Nick is safely back at his home in Seattle. Ziegler also says the “punishment” was a charade by the secret society to further frighten Bill, and it had nothing to do with Mandy’s death; she was a hooker and addict and had indeed died from another accidental drug overdose. Bill clearly does not know if Ziegler is telling him the truth about Nick’s disappearance or Mandy’s death, but he says nothing further and lets the matter drop. This is one of those scenes that is so frustrating, because it’s meant to be mysterious. and plant doubt in the audience’s mind, but because we haven’t actually seen the society inflict any harm or seen anyone die, everything is suspicious. And I don’t just mean, in the world of the film, Bill doesn’t know who to believe, but I am accusing the filmmaker of being suspect. He has played with our trust and not betrayed any feelings in his characters, so it’s hard to place any real trust in the very veracity and reliability of the script and the greater film. Lots of red herrings had been dropped, lots of random colorful and suspicious characters had been introduced, but the film was over two hours now, and Kubrick may be the master of pace and creating taut and tense atmosphere, but there was only so far he could take the menace and dark foreboding of the society. It doesn’t matter how grotesque the masks are, familiarity breeds content. Set pieces and costumes lost power and the ability to scare or intimidate us. This masquerade could go on no longer. This raises major plot hole questions:
- It’s not clear whether the plot line surrounding the society and Bill was just supposed to fizzle out, like it appeared to
- Or is this scene supposed to be more intense, and it is meant to scare Bill straight, once he learns how close he might have come to being killed himself? This would actually work best, with his crying scene with Alice directly following. The problem, is that I never feel like Bill’s life is in, or was in, imminent danger.
- Why doesn’t the screenwriter ever allow us to see one of the society, or threaten having one of them exposed? Their true identities is a vulnerability, that actually takes away their power in the movie, and makes them less imposing
- What is the connection between the society and getting back together with his wife? Nothing ever really seems to happen, and yet, he seems to break down crying as if it did. Why happened?
One of the other considerable problems I had with the film, was the very obvious set that was built to stand-in for Greenwich Village, New York City. I was thoroughly not convinced of the fake New York City set built at Pinewoods Studio, because they essentially filmed only the same corner from similar angles, and the camera never followed the actors anywhere. It felt like exactly what it was — a fake facade of a Greenwich Village street corner. We always saw the same two shops, the same street signs. Throughout history, there’s likely never been a film shot in NYC that didn’t have tracking shots, cranes, dollies, and steadicam, following the actors through the streets of New York, Instead, this set was small, tight, and claustrophobic. This film was clearly not shot in NYC and did nothing to convince me that it was. Without an authentic New York City taste, the audience is subtly taken out of Manhattan, briefly alienated from production, and asked to enter through another door, knowing they were never in New York City. That may seem minor, but those little things add up. To the discerning eye, the set looks fake and like a set. Whenever THAT happens, it can be a slippery slope from there. If they can’t buy into the set, what else won’t they believe? Will they buy into your script? How about those characters who all seem very cold and aloof, and aren’t especially likable? Can you hold them for over two hours? Sometimes, it can all begin with one little thread, and quickly unravel from there. I think the case can be made for Eyes Wide Shut being Kubrick’s weakest and least effective film, for many reasons, including the set and production design. No matter how expertly they dressed the block, anyone who’s ever lived in New York City, could tell that was no Manhattan block. Arguably, NO Stanley Kubrick film before this could ever have been accused of looking like a set or feeling inauthentic in any way. They had all been meticulously constructed, fastidiously painted, and painstakingly dressed.
Having said all that I have said, there are a number of elements which I do enjoy considerably. After all, this movie was still directed by Stanley Kubrick. Which means, even at its worst, even as HIS worst, it’s still hundreds of times better than the average movie. I would watch this easily, before I’d watch half the crap in the theatres today. Kubrick is arguably the best auteur director to ever live. This is is still a masterpiece. it just has a LOT of problems, and does not have the kind of consistent quality we’ve come to expect in a film by Stanley Kubrick. The Kubrickian techniques and elements I enjoyed were: The isolation and loneliness of the main characters. The mystery behind ritual and darkly staged ceremony. The steady and deliberate pace. The long tracking shots. The unique framing. The brutal violence and nudity. The haunting score, and use of music, especially piano cords. The piano leitmotif of the chilling few notes. The skillful editing. The evocative costumes. The blocking and choreography was deliberate and intimidating. The nudity was slightly shocking and contributed greatly to those scenes. The taut tension and anxiety marking the scenes. The menace in the air. The VERY talented cast of new and recognizable character actors. Reocuring motifs and thematic imagery. The homage to several film genres: absurdism, slapstick/vaudeville, psychological bedroom drama, Gangster/ Film Noir, Horror, and Drawingroom Murder Mystery,
The storyline of murder, prostitution, secretive organization, and more, was engaging, but only to a point. Although I consider Kubrick’s pacing to be one of his strongest suits, I felt this movie dragged at points — running nearly three hours, I feel it is just too long. This story could have easily been told in less time.
I can’t help but return to the nucleus of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, at the very heart of this film, but never quite successful and cohesive. I know Stanley Kubrick wanted to work with a husband and wife team, but there must have been any number of actors he could have gotten for those roles. Not that they had the chops, but just to throw out some names: Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, and probably many more. Tom Cruise is a VERY limited actor, and I honestly don’t know what went wrong with Kidman — an actress whom I otherwise enjoy.