By John Baggett
PSDC Pop Culture Guru
Project Shanks Monday Night Movie: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Rating: ***** (out of 5)
This review spoils the entire movie, but this movie is 16 years old.
On March 1, 1999 legendary filmmaker held a screening for his fourteenth feature film, Eyes Wide Shut, for its stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, along with executives at Warner Bros. Kubrick had declared it the best film he ever made, the result of an over 400 day production, requiring some key roles to be recast and holding Cruise and Kidman in London for the entirety of the shoot. Six days after the screening, Kubrick died of a heart attack at the age of 70.
Since its release, Eyes Wide Shut has as many fans as it does detractors. I remember seeing it on video and not quite getting it. That being said, I was somewhere between the age of 18 and 20 when I finally popped it into my VCR. But what happened after that viewing was getting myself actually exposed to Kubrick’s other films. I had heard about them and read about them, but prior to college the only exposure to his work that I’d had was The Shining. So thanks to friends and some classmates I saw Full Metal Jacket, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove. I finally got into the man’s work and understood what made him a genius. I needed this for my next viewing of Eyes Wide Shut.
The film is based on the 1926 erotic novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. Set in present day New York, we follow Dr, Bill Hartford (Cruise), a well respected general practitioner whose penchant for making house calls lands him and his wife Alice (Kidman) an annual invitation to a lavish Christmas party hosted by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). At the party, Hartford runs into an old classmate, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), who gave up med school to become a pianist. Alice is hit on by a wealthy Hungarian, who she dances with but keeps reminding him she is married. Bill is hit on by two young models, only to be pulled away by Ziegler, who was doing coke with a young woman upstairs and she overdosed.
The night after the party, Bill and Alice smoke pot together but the relaxing evening at home turns sour when Alice asks him if he fucked the two models. Bill tells her he didn’t, but as the conversation goes on things become heated, especially once Bill says women are inherently more faithful than men. Alice retaliates by telling him about her fantasies about an affair she could have had with a naval officer she met while they were on vacation. Bill is traumatized by this admission, but he is unable to resolve things as he is called away by the daughter of a patient to inform him her father has passed away.
Bill heads out to visit the daughter, beginning a night of sexual misadventures. While visiting with the daughter, she tells him that she is in love with him and wants to be with him instead of moving away with her fiancée. Bill tries comforting her but leaves her in the care of her fiancée. While walking the streets he meets a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw), who takes him up to her apartment. They negotiate terms, but Alice calls to check on him, shutting down his desire to sleep with Domino, though he pays her for wasting her time.
He leaves the apartment and visits the club where Nick is playing and Nick lets it slip that he has another gig that night for a private party where he plays blindfolded but knows a lot of orgies and crazy shit goes down. Bill manages to get the password to the house out of Nick and sets out to rent a costume and mask so he can observe this party. He visits a shop where he used to know the owner but has now been taken over by eccentric Mr. Milich, whom Bill bribes to let him in and rent a costume. While there, Milich catches his underage daughter (Leelee Sobieski) playing around with two Japanese businessmen. The daughter even flirts with Bill, but Bill just rents the mask and costume and leaves for the party.
He takes a cab to the mansion where the party is going on and manages to get inside, where we witness Nick playing during a bizarre ritual, while other rooms of the party feature the party guests having sex with the models/hookers hired for the orgies. One of the girls at the party knows Bill is not supposed to be there and warns him he needs to leave because his life is in danger. He ignores this advice and two men from the party take Bill into a room where everyone at the party has gathered to deal with this impostor, led by a figure only known as Red Cloak. Red Cloak orders Bill to take off his mask and then his clothes, but the girl who warned Bill offers herself as a sacrifice. Bill is ordered by Red Cloak to leave and say nothing of what he saw or face dire consequences.
The next day Bill wakes up and can’t leave well enough alone. He returns the costume but forgot the mask at the mansion, so he goes back to the mansion, where he is warned again to just leave. At the costume shop, he sees Milich’s daughter and the businessmen still together, with Milich telling him everything was worked out. He goes to visit Nick, who checked out of his hotel room early, with the desk clerk telling him he was with two men and it looked like he’d been in a fight. He sees an article in the paper where a model was found dead from an overdose, and goes to the morgue to see her body. And he ends up at Domino’s apartment where he is told by her roommate that Domino just found out she is HIV positive.
As Bill travels from place to place trying to piece together what the fuck he saw the night before he notices he is being followed. Ziegler calls him for a meeting at his home. There Ziegler confesses that he saw Bill at the party and he had him followed. He tells him that the model that died just “got her brains fucked out” but if she died from an OD that was because she had a problem, that Nick was put on a plane back home to his family, and that Bill needs to drop searching for answers about the party, saying if he only knew who was at that party, but naturally refuses to tell him anything else.
Bill goes home and discovers Alice sleeping with his party mask laying on his pillow. Bill breaks down and confesses everything to Alice. Alice is tearful, but tells him they have to take their daughter Christmas shopping. While out, Alice tells Bill they should be grateful and that their relationship is fine for now, but the word forever scares her. The film culminates with her telling they need to do something they haven’t done for quite a while – “fuck.”
Having seen this film now at least a dozen times and having seen most of Kubrick’s filmography (should have seen it all by now) I can safely say that this is my favorite Stanley Kubrick film. I know this might come as a shock, especially considering this film doesn’t have the stellar reputation that many other Kubrick films have, but I contend this film is an absolute masterpiece.
First, this film still gets under my skin the way few films can. I can fall asleep watching The Exorcist and not have an uncomfortable moment. With this film, if I hear that goddamn piano music as Bill is being led into the room with Red Cloak I am creeped the fuck out. (Is it the music? Is it the masks? Is it both? Probably.)
I also appreciate the complex nature of this story, how it can be debated on what is real and what isn’t. Was Bill’s night of sexual misadventure a dream and the next day was real? Was it all real and Bill’s life was in danger? Was is it all real and in order to stop Bill’s questions they just fucked with Bill? All can be true. Even the cinematography captures a dreamlike atmosphere. The sets are amazing, especially considering it was all shot in London, but you believe it’s New York.
I also think this one of Cruise’s best performances and maybe the last great performance by Kidman. Made while the two were still married, the chemistry between the two is natural, in the moments when the characters are happy and when things are falling apart.
I know this film isn’t to everyone’s tastes. It’s not an easy film to watch. I didn’t like it at first but now I absolutely love it. It gets better the more you watch it and once you decide what this film is about its easier to follow. I think this film is straightforward and everything that happens on screen actually happened, not because it’s realistic, but because of the way things wrap up. I believe Ziegler’s story and I never believed Bill’s life was in danger, but that they just really wanted to scare the shit out of him.
Even though I spoiled the film, I think you still need to see this film if you haven’t. Or if you haven’t seen it in a while revisit it. It’s tense as hell, well shot, and will stay in your head for days, weeks, months, years. It’s one of the most rewarding films I’ve ever watched and proof that age and time can affect how you feel about a film. I wasn’t ready for this film the first time but now I watch this film once every few months and still continue to get something out of it. It’s more than just a film full of boobs, even though there are a lot of boobs. Like a lot. Why didn’t I like this film the first time?
Follow John on Twitter: @TrapperJohn1210