The maverick director’s collision of style, slasher and psychedelia remains a seminal moment in American cinema.
CAUTION: the following review contains spoilers. Though no more so than the average publicity still for this film.
Donald Cammell is the stuff of legend. Not exactly a prolific filmmaker – White of the Eye was only his third feature film in two decades – his allegedly (and probably) decadent lifestyle and nihilistic streak make him one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from the 1960s counter-culture. And so on paper, this film sounds like a bit of a sell-out – standard 1980s psycho slasher film. And the opening minute or so makes your heart sink. It looks and sounds screamingly Eighties – rich people, big houses, horrible fashions, a ghastly bit of music by Nick Mason and Rick Fenn that reminds you of their appalling 1985 album… that nasty 1980s feel that can best be described as ‘the look of money’. The scene is set for a shameful exercise in the degradation of burnt-out talent.
But things rapidly change. The giallo-like murder that this opening moment immediately leads to is impressive and splashy – still very much of the era, but perhaps more on a Michael Mann/Manhunter level of stylised excess where there is an awareness of the potential for crassness that allows the designer look of the film to become intrinsic to the narrative – where every moment feels like a deliberately created hyper-reality. And then the film begins to move into its own direction, becoming increasingly off-kilter and ending up with a finale that becomes so deranged and excessive that the only possible point of comparison could be David Lynch from the same era.
At heart, White of the Eye is simple enough. David Keith is Paul White, family man and audio expert who installs high-end sound systems in the homes of the wealthy. A couple of brutal murders have taken place in the vicinity of where he works, and the tyre prints match those of his truck, making him the number one suspect. Meanwhile, his marriage to Joan (Cathy Moriarty) is in trouble, thanks to the attention of a sex-crazed rich client (Alberta Watson).
So far, standard 1980s neo-noir stuff then. The wrongly accused hero has to try to clear his name while assorted potential suspects – Joan’s ex, the somewhat unbalanced ex-jailbird Mike (Alan Rosenberg) chief among them – are paraded before us and the occasional extravagant murder keeps the plot ticking over. But this is far from standard. The screenplay by Cammell and wife China gives the film several quirky twists as it digs into native American mythology, flashing back and forth in a way that is dizzying and sometimes deliberately confusing, and shifts under our feet so frequently that we become unsure who to trust.
Eventually and surprisingly, it turns out that Paul really is the killer. Given that the film has gone out of its way to make him seem like the classic victimised hero, this is quite a revelation, and it’s done in dramatic fashion – Joan discovering hidden boy parts under the sink. Having given him an alibi when questioned by the police (she’d slashed his tyres in revenge for his adultery, suggesting that he was a philanderer rather than a killer) and then reconciled with him, this seems the ultimate betrayal. And as Paul flips into full psychotic mode, the film itself suddenly casts off all restraints and becomes deliriously insane. Paul paints his face to look like a Native American warrior, destroys the house and chases his wife into a quarry where the only slightly less mad Mike has been waiting – seemingly for years – for Paul to turn up for their final showdown.
The David Lynch comparison made earlier is, of course, the immediate one that comes to mind while watching this film. It has that mix of small-town soap opera and Bad Things Happening under the surface of normality that informed Lynch’s work of the time – Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks – and shows a similar lack of restraint when unleashing the insanity. Keith is impressive as he switches from normal guy to raving lunatic, especially as the shift is almost imperceptible – it happens quickly yet slowly, if that makes any sense. But he doesn’t seem that much crazier than half the townsfolk – again like Lynch, Cammell populates his film with eccentrics and crazies.
The film looks astonishing – there are wide, sweeping landscape shots that are pretty stunning, and the opening murder, red splashed across white and goldfish gasping for breath in pools of blood, have an operatic sense of grandeur. Every shot in the film seems carefully thought out and the bleached out flashbacks slowly become more integrated into the main narrative, to the point where it’s sometimes hard to tell which time period we are in – possibly both simultaneously. What’s more, the previously clumsy soundtrack by Mason and Fenn suddenly shifts gear into being rather brilliant, as if that opening moment had been a deliberate act of misdirection, making us think we were in for another generic glossy 1980s thriller, rather than the slow dive into madness that the film actually is.
White of the Eye is one of those rare 1980s films that both reflects and subverts the era it was made in. I can’t say it’s entirely unlike anything else you’ll ever see, because there are a handful of other films – including those mentioned earlier – that pull a similar trick. But it’s staggeringly original, innovative, challenging and twisted, worthy of the Cammell legend.
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