Under-Rated Movies #13: Eye of God (1997); Dir. Tim Blake

13. Eye of God

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Directed by Tim Blake Nelson (he also wrote it), the film was pretty much ignored when it came out and is so ignored to this day that I could barely find any images of the film online. It was critically acclaimed, but it didn’t find an audience. In America this is obviously a sin but I think some films are not meant for a broad audience. Watch Eye of God and you will see a movie with very few compromises. Most big budget films make all kinds of compromises, with script, or casting, or general thematic elements, and sometimes the films are successes regardless, but other times they are complete debacles.

Nelson has gone on to greater success and Eye of God was his directorial debut.

Eye of God is deeply deeply unsettling. It’s one of the bleakest pictures of humanity ever put on film and the fact that film-makers feel the need to apologize for this, apologize for making serious films, is a sorry commentary on the state of affairs. Yes, there is a place for comedic films, romance films, but these genres are not the natural default position for films. Neither are serious films, by the way: there IS no default position, but in this day of blockbusters, when opening day grosses are printed in the newspaper, people feel inclined to apologize for any seriousness that may be in a film. Or at least warn people. “Look out – this isn’t a comedy!”

I’m not warning you, because I don’t think seriousness is a bad thing. I don’t think bleakness is anything to apologize for. I don’t want it as a regular diet but it’s just as much a part of life as anything else. This film is heart-achingly bleak, and it does not congratulate itself for it. Eye of God is bleak because sometimes shit happens, and sometimes life doesn’t work out for people. That is final.

The title resonates long after the credits roll, because it is not explained in the film. Nobody spells it out. A character doesn’t do an impassioned monologue about the eye of God, to let us know what we are supposed to feel, to telegraph: “Here is ‘The Meaning’ of the movie.” After I first saw it, I sat stunned in my living room, trying to process what had just happened. Eye of God is a Greek tragedy in that the whole thing starts to feel inevitable, even though you, in the audience, can see: “Oh wait – if she didn’t do THAT, then THAT would not have happened …” We feel how if so and so made one different choice, then the awful consequences would not have followed. Life feels incredibly precarious after you watch Eye of God. I wondered if the title had to do with the audience: we, in the audience, are omniscent, in a way. We know the end. Since the story is jumbled up and told out of chronological order, we know some of the things that will happen before the characters do. So we feel their fragility, we feel their vulnerability, as these huge events approach, and they remain oblivious.

What does that say about the film’s opinion on God? God sees all, but he never intervenes. Therefore, what good is he? The film is brutal in this regard. I have rarely felt so hopeless and so enraged when watching a film. And – unlike the Greeks – there is no catharsis provided. This film reveals the lie of “everything happens for a reason”. Eye of God is an indictment of that kind of easy tie-it-up-in-a-bow thinking. There is evil in this world, and it preys on the innocent. Tim Blake Nelson obviously does not think that Ainsley’s suffering “happens for a reason”.

In his review of this film, Ebert writes:

The villain in the film is not exactly Jack. Like an animal, he behaves according to his nature, and the way to deal with him is to stay away from him. The movie is more about Ainsley’s luck than Jack’s behavior. Somebody always marries these jerks, but you gotta hope it’s not you.

Exactly. We have empathy for Ainsley. Not only that, though, we are screaming at her, mentally, to run. Run. As fast as you can. Run! He’s a monster. Run!!! But she does not run. Because she is an innocent. And she does not see the world as a place where evil stalks. So when it shows up on her doorstep, with a friendly warm smile, she lets him in.

Kevin Anderson plays Jack, the ex-convict. Martha Plimpton, in one of her most interesting roles (I thought she should have been nominated for an Oscar) plays Ainsley, the bored small-town girl who seems to just be … waiting. For what we don’t know, and she doesn’t know either. But her life is small. And somehow, she thinks … it should be bigger. She’s a waitress in a diner. She goes and sits at a 7-11 store out on the highway just so she can watch the people come and go. Maybe so she can live vicariously. Even just by watching them pump gas, she can imagine that maybe one day she will get to travel, too. Ainsley is not a melancholy character, although Plimpton manages to suggest the deep wells of sadness within her. No. She’s the kind of person who puts on a happy face, who looks on the bright side of things, who has had horrible things happen to her, and yet they have not destroyed her essential innocent core. Plimpton, who has always been wise beyond her years, is almost unrecognizable here. Without her performance, the film would not work. Ainsley is not a complicated character. She doesn’t complicate things in her own mind. She is not self-reflective, or intelligent about who she is. But her vague yearnings for … something more … are at the heart of this movie. Perhaps if she hadn’t thought that something ELSE might be out there for her, Jack would not have come into her life. And perhaps she would not have welcomed him in with such warmth and such trust.

Hal Holbrook plays the sheriff in the town in a wonderful performance which capitalizes on the Holbrook-ness of Hal Holbrook. Holbrook can sometimes, in the wrong material, veer off into sentimental folksiness. This is not the case here. He is our way into this story, first of all. He is our closest link to anything even resembling a linear narrative, so we need him. He is kind and patient to the character played by Nick Stahl (in a heart-rending performance) as he questions him about what “happened out there”. We feel the growing anger within, we can feel Holbrook’s honing in on the hidden evil in their midst. He begins to sense the inevitable too. He is a man of law and order. He is a small-town sheriff. He knows everyone in the town, and perhaps his job is not all that exciting on a day to day basis. It’s pretty slow, on the whole. No burglaries, maybe a couple drunk-and-disorderly problems, but nothing like THIS. However, here he is, faced with a blood-covered young boy, who has lost the ability to speak, and in Holbrooke’s quiet controlled performance you can see the genius of all good cops everywhere. You can see his inherent goodness, and his inherent hatred of badness.

Kevin Anderson is marvelous in his role. I have watched Sleeping with the Enemy a million times, mainly because it seems to be on television pretty much every day, and I never found him all that convincing in his part as the kindly rather baffled drama-teacher guy who lives next door. I know that is partly due to the filming because director Joseph Rubin wanted to keep us on edge, not let us trust him right away. But even so, even with Anderson’s shaggy shock of hair, and nice soft smile, and kind eyes, there was something there, something that never really sat well with me. I saw him on Broadway in Death of a Salesman where he played Biff, and he was GREAT. Better than Dennehy. (Well, everyone was better than Dennehy in that production.) But then, when I saw Eye of God, the little light-bulb went off in my head. He is so good in this film, and so convincing that you, the audience member, get as disoriented as Ainsley does at times. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and you get that very early on, so I’m not giving anything away. But Anderson’s true milieu as an actor is not the nice cute guy who gets the girl. His true milieu is much more menacing. He is nothing less than 100% convincing in this part. I thought he should have gotten an Oscar nomination as well.

I said earlier in this post that this is an example of a movie that has very little compromise in it. I was talking in terms of the overall movie: the cast is excellent, the script doesn’t hold back, it stays true to its story. The tone of the film is perfect. There are eerie moments of stillness which are nearly unbearable. We see a line of dark trees on the other side of a pond, and the camera rests on them, not moving, for what feels like forever. There are no sounds. No voices. It is, hands down, one of the most terrifying images in the film. Nelson was not forced by a studio to tack on a happy ending, or at least give a moral so the audience can have some hope. No. He filmed what he wanted to film. No compromises.

But in another meaning of the word, this is an uncompromising film in its theme, and in its insistence on the story it wants to tell. It is uncompromising in its views of loneliness, hope, love, redemption, mercy, God.

A wrenching film, it stayed with me for days after I saw it, and stays with me still.

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6 Responses to Under-Rated Movies #13: Eye of God (1997); Dir. Tim Blake

  1. Erik says:

    I’ve held this movie in my hands at the video store dozens of times (because i’ve LOVED martha plimpton forever, and ever since Carnivale i’ve also loved nick stahl) but for some reason I’ve never taken it home. I’ve never read a review of the movie and I’ve never spoken to anyone who has seen it. But now you’ve got me. I’m definitely going to rent it. (I just remembered the movie Bully, which also has a great Nick Stahl performance in it. Have you seen Bully? I caught it on TV late one night and wasn’t planning on staying up late but I couldn’t turn off the TV. It’s a heartbreaking film and difficult to watch. But very powerful.)

  2. red says:

    yes!! I have seen Bully! Terrifying – and Nick Stahl is amazing.

    Please let me know what you think of Eye of God, Erik – it’s really disturbing, I had a hard time sleeping after I first watched it.

    So so good

  3. RTG says:

    I just bought the dvd based entirely on your description of the film.

  4. Kate says:

    Wow…definitely going to check this one out.

  5. Ken says:

    Is there anything Tim Blake Nelson doesn’t do well? Maybe he’s a lousy tennis player or something….

    A tremendous (and versatile) talent. Most admirable. I’ll put Eye of God on the “one of these days” list (it’s getting longer, but I’m on page 534 of The Brothers Karamazov now so anything is possible).

  6. red says:

    Ken – we can only hope he’s a lousy tennis player. Otherwise it just makes me feel bad! He’s also so YOUNG. I really admire him.