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Eyes Wide Shut

Warner Home Video

Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman

Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick

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I really wanted to love Eyes Wide Shut, the much-hyped final film from the late Stanley Kubrick — in fact, even before the theatrical release in 1999, I had hoped to write a review that would praise and mourn one of cinema's most innovative filmmakers. I wanted to report that Eyes is a remarkable achievement, a visceral odyssey of sight and sound that would prove, like Kubrick's best work, impossible to shake. Such words would make the director's untimely death (he passed away four days after completing work on the project) even more tragic, as he appeared to be on a creative upswing: Kubrick had reportedly been gearing up for another film, a promising sci-fi thriller entitled A.I. But now, whether he intended it or not, this final movie must forever bookend the remarkable career which began with 1953's Fear and Desire and progressed through such cinematic milestones as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus, Lolita, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. Could any film possibly ascend to such lofty heights?

Preliminary signs looked good: Eyes generated positive word of mouth from the handful of people who were allowed an early peek at the completed film. However, even with the good buzz, relatively few plot details were available for the asking — a fierce veil of secrecy, reportedly instigated by Kubrick himself, blanketed the project since its inception. About the only details I knew before seeing Eyes Wide Shut in the theater were: a) the film supposedly takes a cerebral look at sexual dysfunction; b) the movie was nearly rated NC-17 because of its nudity and depiction of sexual acts; and c) the film's stars (and real-life spouses) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have plenty of opportunity to get jiggy with each other on-screen.

So how does the movie stack up? While I had significant problems with the story, I nevertheless found much of the film brilliant, overflowing with the Kubrickian touches that have made the bulk of his work such indelible artistic achievements. Eyes Wide Shut is far from perfect and nowhere near Kubrick's best work, but I think that one's potential appreciation (I hesitate to say "enjoyment") of the film will depend primarily on the expectations the viewer brings to it. As usual, Kubrick establishes a laconic pace early on for the story, which will unquestionably bore many viewers. Surreal images float dreamlike across the screen. Long passages of the film are rendered in absolute silence as the director allows our eyes, not our ears, to take in the story. In short, it is business as usual for a Kubrick film.

The marketing campaign is directly responsible for the disappointment and confusion many audience members will feel after screening the movie. Eyes Wide Shut was billed as a raunchy sex-fest, but it's nothing of the sort. Although the film contains a rather extreme amount of nudity, the concept of sexual dysfunction is explored with a cool, aloof eye from Kubrick. Yes, there's a lot of on-camera sex, but it's neither erotic nor passionate. Everyone has been objectified to the point where all desire is irradicated. People here seem to make love simply because it is expected of them, not because they have any wish to perform the act. Despite the nudity, you'll be hard-pressed to find a less erotic movie.

The story, in a nutshell: Bill Harford (an excellent performance by Tom Cruise) is a happily married doctor living with his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) and their daughter in upper-middle-class bliss. Bill's life seems perfect until Alice drops a bombshell on him, admitting that she still thinks about sex with other men despite the decade-long marriage the couple have enjoyed. After Alice confesses that she once almost cheated on her husband with a naval officer, Bill enters a 48-hour state of mental turmoil, during which he becomes immersed in a seedy underworld of sex, scandal and death.

Thankfully, Eyes Wide Shut is constructed with the considerable technical virtuosity that Kubrick demonstrated in nearly all his work. It boasts the loveliest cinematography I've seen in recent memory (Kubrick was a staff photographer for LOOK magazine before he embraced filmmaking, and he knew how to use lighting, angles and color to maximum effect), making the film fascinating to watch even when the pace lags. Tom Cruise turns in an Oscar-caliber performance for his role as the confused and hurt Dr. Bill. Eyes also boasts a rich, chilling gothic atmosphere, which serves the story's tone well.

However, Eyes, even by Kubrick's standards, is excessively long and often uninvolving. The sparse musical score (consisting almost entirely of a solo piano playing two notes) is repetitive to the point of madness, and at times the film seems unsure of what it's supposed to be and what it's trying to say.

Still, even if it doesn't quite work, Eyes Wide Shut will likely be remembered as a great experiment gone somewhat askew. I respect Kubrick's attempt to embrace complex themes and tell an astoundingly original story, rather than adopting cheap clichés and formula, as so many other filmmakers choose to do. It's not a perfect film, but Kubrick aficionados will doubtless find much to like, even if these praiseworthy aspects have more to do with the film's technical elements rather than the actual storytelling. It's not the be-all, end-all Kubrick film that I'd hoped it would be, but it has much to offer the patient viewer. Whether non-fans will like it is another question entirely. It's possible, as long as they're expecting a cerebral odyssey and not a porno.

While a valuable addition to the DVD library of any Kubrick fan, Eyes Wide Shut suffers from many of the same problems that plagued Warner's Stanley Kubrick Collection box set from 1999 — namely, a full-frame transfer and not much in the way of supplements. The image quality on this disc is very good, but the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (Kubrick was not a fan of letterboxing) does not accurately render the film in its original theatrical release (although, since the 1.85 ratio in theaters was matted, this is not a pan-and-scan transfer). Furthermore, while Warner easily could have released the unrated version of Eyes Wide Shut, as they have in overseas markets, the Region 1 disc is the MPAA-approved R-rated edition, which includes the digital alteration of an orgy scene — an alteration done after Kubrick's death in order to meet contractural obligations. As of this point, Warner says they have no plans to release the NC-17 edition in North America. The few supplements here are interviews with Cruise, Kidman, and Kubrick confidante Steven Spielberg, the theatrical trailer, and two TV spots.

— Joe Barlow

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