Why My Heart Still Won’t Open For ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

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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.

 
This writer erroneously states that those of us who didn’t like the film, must have been uncomfortable with the subject matter, since the filmmaking was unimpeachable. This is patently false. I might not have enjoyed the story, but I had many more problems with the narrative, casting, direction, set, and execution of the film. Although some of the intrigue and murder plot elements in the context of this secretive organization were interesting to begin with, the script never seemed to gel. It never fully came together, and there was a disconnect  between this sexual dysfunctional relationship between husband and wife in their safe and small home, and the sprawling mansions of the organization, with naked flesh everywhere, and a sea of undulating sex as people  joined the larger orgy. The disparate parts of the movie felt clunky and didn’t always fit. One might argue that the relationships are broken and don’t work properly, like his marriage, and that is reflected in the structure and interactions in the film. I think this is often a cop out, and if Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman felt awkward and unnatural, it wasn’t a choice. It was a reality.

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.

 
I would argue, that in addition to the subject matter and content, I had major problems with the script, including structure, language, and style. I thought it often felt contrived, and fantastic. And characters spoke in heightened and stylistic dialogue that sometimes felt stagey and melodramatic, and often recoiled against the more natural elements of the film. The biggest problem with the film is that it’s all a much ado about nothing. Sure, there is this secret society, and a hooker does end up dead, but we don’t ever know exactly how. We never know what happens to Nick, the piano player. Did he get killed off too? The secret religious sex organization and its rituals are dark and shady, but apart from having illicit sex, what true threat are they? What are they covering up? Are they killing prostitutes regularly? It’s implied that the people under the masks are important people, but we never learn who, and therefore, we never learn how high the stakes are. Are they priests and moral religious leaders? State Senators? What it all comes down to, is for all the “atmosphere” that Kubrick provides — black cloaks, grotesque masks, spare piano cords, dark shadows, stained wood, people following Dr. Harford, drugs, illicit sex, a blindfolded piano player who gets roughed up, and more, the film actually provides little concrete action and tangible danger. Nothing really happens. The movie, therefore, feels a little like an elaborate film noir sleight of hand. It has that moody and dark intrigue, with always the constant threat of danger and menace, but rarely do we see it. Is this a movie about a man discovering a secret sex club that murders prostitutes and is filled with many important members of the community, who must remain anonymous film about a couple struggling with their marriage? The wife is having these sex dreams with a sailor, and Dr. Harford is flirting shamelessly with beautiful women, and on more than one occasion, soliciting sex from strangers and acquaintances. This couple is broken, and needs something to happen, in order for them to stay together. At the end of the film, Cruise simply falls apart with guilt. He breaks down in tears and decides to tell Alice the whole truth of the past two days. The next morning, they go Christmas shopping with their daughter. Alice muses that they should be grateful they have survived, that she loves him, and there is something they must do as soon as possible. When Bill asks what it may be, she simply says: “Fuck.” What does any of this mean? They haven’t had sex in a while, so did they have to go through this elaborate charade, in order to feel alive, and find their way back into each others’ lives? Why have we seen no emotion or crying from Tom Cruise’s character all movie, and now we see this vulnerability? It’s too little, too late. We never saw the human before, so we can’t be expected to empathize with his new-found feelings. He was trying to get laid, mixed up in murder, and treating overdoses casually, and we saw none of his guilt or pain. This is a serious oversight in the script, and the relatively stunted character arc of the character. No character in this film is allowed to grow and evolve in a natural and organic way. Tom Cruise the actor may not have the chops, or Kubrick may have directed him to play his cards close to his chest. And that’s what he did. We saw very little early on, to indicate what we would see towards the end. Kidman has even less screen time, and has these psychosexual dreams with the sailor, which are never fully explained.

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:

  1. It’s not clear whether the plot line surrounding the society and Bill was just supposed to fizzle out, like it appeared to
  2. 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. 
  3. 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
  4. 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, 

Here was the absolute deal breaker in this movie: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s relationship and the actor’s uneven and fizzling chemistry. They were so bad, that when I tried to rewatch the film again, just three months ago, I couldn’t even make it halfway through the film. For a couple that was actually married in real life, I thought they had some of the worst onscreen chemistry I’ve ever seen. I simply did not belief that they were a married couple! It sounds almost unbelievable that an actual married couple would have such a hard time convincing an audience they were married and had chemistry. Instead, it was a weird energy, and not one that felt intimate and affectionate. So many moments felt forced and were not subtly in the least bit, perhaps none more so than the scene where Nicole Kidman smokes a joint and goes completely crazy. Nicole’s character is so over the top in this scene, she’s just chewing the scenery from the inside. I’ve often seen unskilled actors playing drunk or high, and make the mistake of “acting drunk” or “acting high” and go completely over the top. In reality, people that are drunk and high, often do whatever it takes to appear sober, so they’re actually fighting against the intoxication, and that gives an actor so much more to play with. She was staggering and stumbling like a drunken sailor, and it was painful to watch. As the story progressed, I became engaged with Dr. Harford’s pursuit of this mystery, which lies at the heart of the story (yet, we’re curiously never told exactly what it is), is a compelling one, and as he gets deeper into the mystery and intrigue, the better film became. However, Cruise is not an actor with a tremendous amount of emotional range, and so, Bill’s journey was a solitary one, and not one he shared well with the audience. He’s clearly the protagonist, and having trouble in his marriage. He’s become reckless with his life, ending up with prostitutes, followed by gangsters, frequenting a secret society of sexual fetishists, and since the film never gives us definitive answers, potentially the target of a future hit. It is most likely, that Bill caused the deaths of Mandy and Nick. She gave up her life to save his in the ritual room, and Nick gave Bill the password and told him of the costume party in the first place, leading to them finding out, exposing Nick, beating him up, and presumably, killing him. THAT might very well be our answer. THAT might very well be the slap to the face that wakes Bill up, and drives him back into the arms of his wife. That might be enough to make a grown man bawl like a baby. when held in the arms of Alice. He hadn’t known what he wanted, except for maybe vaguely sex with anonymous women. He took great personal risks, and in a fair world, Bill would have paid with his life. But he had an advocate — Ziegler — whose life he had practically saved earlier, and to whom he owed a big favor. Ziegler put his neck out there, and was admonished for his carelessness. Victor had brought Nick into the fold as a blindfolded pianist, and Nick had brought Bill into the society, with tragic consequences. Shouldn’t Bill be the one to die, since he’s the trie interloper? When Ziegler recognized it was Bill though, he had to intervene, and in so doing, he needed a sacrifice. Nick should have known better, sure, but he hardly deserved to pay with his life. It’s no coincidence, that Dr. Harford begins the movie saving Mandy’s life, and then near the end, Mandy ends up saving his. In essence, Bill saves her life at the beginning, and then he causes her death at the end. The only way for Bill to live, is if Nick becomes the scapegoat. Bill must know this, when he goes to Nick’s hotel. He at least makes an effort to save his life. He knew he was in grave danger. There’s an important element to take into consideration in all of this exchange of lives and sacrifice of strangers. And that is the socioeconomic picture. It’s easy to see that the society was made up of extremely wealthy businessmen, surgeons, politicians, lawyers, judges, heiresses, millionaires, and other titans of industry. Ziegler was an extremely wealthy patient of the presumably wealthy, Dr. Harford. These two BELONG in that mansion. They are wealthy, elite, and members of a small select few of people who run that City. State. Country. I have to wonder if they know who each other are. Do they always wear the masks? Regardless, its plain to see, who inherently didn’t belong in that setting. Nick was a poor pianist who once might have had a bright future, but he somehow ended up playing piano gigs throughout the city. He came lower middle class, if not from the poverty class. He was an artist, and he didn’t belong. Except as their entertainment. And that’s what’s Mandy was: entertainment. She was even lower status than Nick, as a prostitute. To these powerful people, she was a piece of meat, attractive as it may be, but one which you service your pleasures, and discard once you’re finished. If she hadn’t ended up strangled and lying as a Jane Doe in the Morgue, she’d have overdosed and ended up there anyway. Mandy was utterly disposable. The identity of these wealthy elite was imperative, and someone had to die. If Ziegler vouched for Bill, then it was obvious who had to be eliminated. Better two untouchables, than even a single from their own class. Which begs the question, now that Ziegler has been exposed, and made the group vulnerable, does he stay? If so, is there any possibility that Bill actually get invited to join the society? If so, is there any way that ALL of this was a test, to see how committed he was — even willing to sacrifice two people? These are questions the movie does not answer, but are certainly worth considering.

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.

The film is very impersonal, alienating, aloof, distancing, uncomfortable, and sometimes just hard to watch. Although I cited above that I enjoyed seeing Kubrick play with many genres, I felt that also hurt the film. The movie never quite knew what it wanted to be. Was it a romance? Film Noir? Horror? Psychological Bedroom Drama? Or something else entirely? That meant, there were a lot of red herrings, but not always deliberately placed there, but rather, left there, after having fallen out through holes in the script. And there were many. The society was never quite threatening enough, and I never felt Bill was in danger. I would have liked to see him come closer to the line. If the society essentially knows who each other are, what is the big deal about having others inside see them? Presuming the society ordered the deaths of Mandy and Nick, WHY did they have to die? What is the problem between Alice and Bill, and how is so easily fixed with a “fuck” as she says at the end? Their relationship was arguably the weakest in the film, because we knew so little. All we were allowed to see from Alice was lurid sexual dreams about a sailor she fancied. Bill goes searching for women, and certainly has chances, but never quite gets there. Tom Cruise simply doesn’t have the depth to give us true insight as to what was happening in his mind. It was his story, after all. What drove him away from Alice, and what drove him back? Kubrick really could have helped the actor out here, especially by providing a script that fleshed out more of the character. The biggest problem besides not knowing exactly what kind of movie it wants to be, and having a husband and wife team who are not as strong as the script demands, is having a script with too many holes in it, and too many questions brought up, but not enough answers provided. It’s a confusing movie at times, and a few more drafts of that script, could have cleared a lot of the problems up.  If this was the work of any other director, it might be praised more than it has been. To some degree, it’s still quite a masterful film. The problem is, it’s Stanley Kubrick, and he was arguably the greatest film director the world has ever known. With an honor like that, you can be sure his body of work is profound and unrivaled. And it is. His films are unmistakable works of art, and each unique unto itself. This film, does not quite reach those heights. In fact, it falls quite short of that mark, and so we compare this film not to any other director, but against his own work and rigorous high standards. It is undoubtedly, the weakest film he ever directed. The film was not a commercial or critical success, receiving only fair to poor reviews. and has not come down through the years as a fan favorite. Most Kubrick accept the movie for what it is, but it’s not likely making anyone’s top five list. As it is, it’s a very divisive film. There are a surprising number of fans hopelessly devoted to Eyes Wide Shut, while others–such as myself — are quick to point out its many egregious flaws, and only wish it could have lived up to its considerable potential. 

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