EYE OF GOD(director/writer: Tim Blake Nelson; cinematographer: Russell Fine; editor: Kate Sanford; cast: Martha Plimpton (Ainsley DuPree), Kevin Anderson (Jack Stillings), Nick Stahl (Tommy Spencer), Margo Martindale (Tommy’s Aunt), Mary Kay Place (Claire Spencer), Hal Holbrook (Sheriff Sam Rogers), Richard Jenkins (Willard Sprague); Runtime: 84; Castle Hill Productions and Minnow Pictures; 1997)
“Best suited for a cult audience.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Eye of God is the film version of Tim Blake Nelson’s stage play. Its genre is Southern noir-mystery; its storyline resembles a biblical allegory about redemption. It’s set in a sleepy rural town in Oklahoma called Kingfisher, and is told in a jumbled order and in a flashback. At first this nonlinear approach is confusing but it begins to make sense when we realize that the power of the story is not in solving the crime that was committed, but in understanding the people in this town through their dreams and disappointments and belief in God.
The main character is an innocent young woman, Ainsley (Plimpton), who is a fast-food worker, with a glass eye from a childhood accident (the symbolism of what that glass eye meant, a means of self-delusion, was not as clearly developed as it could have been). Ainsley, after corresponding with a prisoner named Jack (Anderson), will meet him for the first time on his release and immediately marry him. He has become a Christian fundamentalist in prison, praising God for changing his life and allowing him the opportunity to work an honest job as a mechanic.
The other star is Sheriff Sam Rogers (Holbrook), who is the voice of reason, the one asking the film’s most pertinent questions about whether there is a God and whether it is feasible to just obey him blindly.
The opening scene starts off like a horror story as Tommy Spencer (Nick), a 14-year-old, is found wandering in the woods all bloodied and unable to speak. It’s assumed the kid either witnessed a horrific crime or was the culprit. The police are startled to see him in this condition and try to figure out what happened. The sheriff practices what he preaches and gently handles the boy, showing deep concern for his well-being. The viewer will learn what happened through repeated flashbacks.
The film spends most of its time developing the strange relationship between Jack and the lonely Ainsley, who is desperate to talk to someone.
A hopeless feeling of loneliness and boredom is evoked, as this dreary rural town is shown as a place where people are trapped into believing what they imagine God should be like. What is unsettling to any sensitive being, is that there is no escape–every small town in Oklahoma looks the same. Predictably Ainsley’s marriage only increases her loneliness as her husband soon acts to control every movement she makes, forcing her to stay in the house and not leave without his permission. Religion is reduced to an inhibiting dogma that makes a bleak life seem even bleaker.
The main reason the film works so well is because the acting from the leads is so convincing. Plimpton is the glue that holds this picture together, as she is someone we come to really care about. Holbrook is a gentle force, giving the film a sensibility that is hard to question. His take on things narrowly avoids becoming a Sunday sermon. Nick Stahl perfectly conveys a quiet but unflagging desperation and a fair amount of teenage angst. He wrestles with how to escape from his unhappy funk ever since his mother (Place) committed suicide and he was made to live with his aunt (Martindale), whom he does not respect. Martindale, as the aunt, adds her impenetrable mixture of self-pity and her public display of cheerfulness to the town’s drab soul. While Anderson, as the troubled but clean-cut ex-con, is in a role I have seen played too often in recent years for me to be overwhelmed by his nevertheless effective performance. Despite too many superficial messages about religion that are mixed in with powerful ones, it works as a curio film. It presents pressing concepts about faith that give pause to further thought. Yet it doesn’t have wide appeal, as it’s best suited for a cult audience.
REVIEWED ON 3/12/99 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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