Eye of God
1997, R, 85 min. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Starring Martha Plimpton, Kevin Anderson, Hal Holbrook, Nick Stahl, Richard Jenkins, Maggie Moore, Mary Kay Place.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 5, 1997
Does God keep watch over Kingfisher, Oklahoma, or is this desolate little oil-busted town as godforsaken as it appears? First-time filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson makes no bones about his concerns in this bleak Bible Belt portrait, a story he adapted from his own stage play. Strong and haunting performances sustain this structurally unconventional narrative that dovetails two distinct storylines and several time frames. The film's fragmented narrative structure helps create a spare, stripped-down feel and fosters unmet expectations that Nelson's mysterious storytelling tricks will yield to ultimate cohesion once the elements finally converge. Despite the fact that the film's whole never quite equals its parts, Eye of God provides a fascinating ride and evocative glimpses of ordinary people in the throes of crisis. One storyline has to do with troubled youth Tom Spencer (Stahl, the kid from Mel Gibson's Man Without a Face) who is found one night covered in blood and wandering aimlessly down a country road. He has witnessed a crime of such brutality that he cannot speak, not even to the kindly sheriff played by Hal Holbrook (whose voiceover about the meaning of the story of Abraham and Isaac opens the film). The film's other story focuses on Ainsley (Plimpton), a young woman who marries her prison pen pal Jack (Anderson) following a quick courtship upon his release. Sweet and trusting, the solitary Ainsley is swayed by the tenderness and devout sincerity of reborn Christian Jack. Overlooking his unwillingness to name the crime for which he was committed, Ainsley is taken with his Promise Keeper-like avowal of marriage, faith, and family. With an almost foregone inevitability, Ainsley and Jack's dreamland disintegrates. Plimpton, however, is at her finest here, forgoing her usual street savvy persona for this characterization of a sweet, dim daughter of the heartland. And Anderson (TV's Nothing Sacred) is equally effective as the story's unpredictable narrative factor. The film's supporting characters are all memorable too, flush with small details and regional specificity. Yet the film's forced structural mysteries and the overly literal dependence on its spiritual theme burden Eye of God with weights it cannot comfortably bear. Such narrative conceits are the type of mortal flaws that keep this otherwise powerful drama all too earthbound.