“Catered kidnapping with class”
The premise is hardly fresh: six people wake in a room tied to chairs, strangers without a clue as to what’s happening. Think Saw. Think Unknown (the 2006 one). Think numerous films, television shows, and other forms of media that fit the bill. So how does Robbie Bryan‘s The Eyes set itself apart from them to make its use of the scenario fresh? That’s the make it or break it question able to render your experience captivating or excruciating. I personally do lean towards the former, although I won’t deny that the whole feels all too familiar to truly devote my full attention. What works to combat that complacency is a distinct desire on behalf of Robert T. Roe‘s script to introduce its characters as more than props.
It’s not about killing them in gross ways when the budget couldn’t sustain the aesthetic necessary for that to prove successful. Instead the exact opposite is true. These characters are meant to survive—or at the very least provide reason enough to hope they will. According to a voice on an intercom they are guilty of heinous crimes. But should we believe it? If we are able to get to know them and understand their fear, compassion, and faults, we can care about their fate rather than revel in their destruction as set forth by this unknown figure. It may sound small, but this notion is crucial to our investment. We’re given one room, six people, and no frills. Dialogue is king, ambition and motivation driving every word.
So before we get to the part where their impending doom is presented (the group must unanimously vote for a single survivor or else everyone dies), we can decide who is worthy of our time. Is it the cold, calculating Jaclyn (Megan West), a lawyer who epitomizes poise in the face of her messed up situation? Is it young Jeffrey (Danny Flaherty) and his unceasing profanity-laced pessimism? How about Arnold (Steven Hauck) the Harvard professor or Victoria (Ana Isabelle) the former Miss America turned porn star? Maybe we will choose to vilify Harry (Vincent Pastore) the crassly accusatory and ill-tempered cowboy as we hail Robby (Greg Davis Jr.) the chivalrous fisherman willing to defend the honor of his unknown companions. Or perhaps everyone is putting on a show.
Is there any doubt about it? Who doesn’t affix a mask when leaving home to socially engage with the general population in an attempt to feign composed sanity? For all any of these people know, one of them is the orchestrator of this charade. So they keep the truth close to their vests. They provide details about themselves in small, sanitized capsules and allow the chaos to continue until more answers come their way. First it’s armed men with automatic rifles and a conspicuously un-masked woman bringing food. Next it’s the man behind the intercom (Nicholas Turturro‘s Charlie) explaining how Big Brother is always watching. And finally it’s each and every one of them—their truths laid bare with backs against the wall as the clock ticks down.
The idea that the fate of one is in their hands is intriguing. If they’re guilty of the nameless crimes for which they’re accused, that guilt may be able to push them into repentance. Maybe they’ll realize they don’t deserve to live and will put their support towards another—exactly what Charlie’s shadowy government agency desires. We therefore watch as their defenses weaken and their morality kicks in. What are they willing to do to survive? And what are they willing to not do so the others can? An element of sacrifice is involved as well as forgiveness in themselves. Some can face it and others cannot (the body count periodically rises as fight or flight lets survival instincts kick in). Who will live if anyone at all?
Things go awry in the details. One is the premise that this organization is doing what they’re doing with governmental approval. It’s a thought-provoking concept commenting on Congressional bills currently being passed with hidden riders, but its utilization forces the premise to toe the line of science fiction in order to be plausible. The “all-seeing eye” is dismissed as available through today’s technology, yet we’re not really there yet. Had Bryan and company put these events in the future, the commentary could have resonated more without our scratching our heads towards the fidelity of Charlie’s claims. He explains how it’s cheaper to execute them without trial than put them in jail, but that’s a huge ask where suspension of disbelief is concerned. Will you buy it?
Two is the way in which the characters converse. Maybe it’s a commentary on our patriarchal society, but the two women are treated as though their simple concepts are being spoken in a foreign language. When Victoria attempts to wrap her head around what Charlie is asking and why, Bryan gets a reaction from all the men scrunching their noses with a “What is she saying?” When Jaclyn explains an outlandish workaround she knows probably won’t work, everyone pretty much ignores her. When she brings it up again after another heated confrontation, however, Arnold screams his applause like it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. There’s this disconnect in their conversations throughout. And while the awkwardness has reason, to use the finale as explanation is a lazy move.
You can’t wait for your conclusion’s revelation to bandage what potentially can take us out of the movie. That’s counter-productive. Some of what we see and hear is so outlandish that sticking around to the end may not even be assured. This is especially true when Bryan and Roe’s destination is problematic in identical ways to the ordeal before it. Legality can’t help but enter the equation when a lawyer is onscreen and the fast and loose ways laws are played with are difficult to blindly accept. That’s okay if you treat The Eyes as an over-the-top thriller leaving our world behind. But I don’t think that’s the filmmakers’ intent. They want it all to make authentic sense and for us to put ourselves in the characters’ shoes.
The film stumbles in this regard, but all isn’t lost since there’s enough to enjoy beyond the setting’s verisimilitude. Questions are raised and characters do interact in emotionally resonate ways. Besides Harry (who’s a vile man made viler upon constantly mentioning he’s found Jesus) and Jaclyn (who’s too composed to be anything but a slimy defense attorney), we do find something in the others to endear us to their plight. Whether sob story of abuse (Victoria), beginnings of a life in love (Jeffrey), assumed innocence via eloquence (Arnold), or a fiery compassion denoting a moral code (Robby), we don’t want to hear what bad thing put them in this room. But if it was murder, should they be allowed the power to forgive so one may live?