March 2023

Eye for an Eye (1996)

Eye for an Eye (1996) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

DIRECTOR: John Schlesinger

CAST: Sally Field, Ed Harris, Kiefer Sutherland, Joe Mantegna, Beverly D’Angelo, Charlyane Woodard, Philip Baker Hall, Keith David


Eye for an Eye is a particularly nasty piece of audience emotional manipulation that plays on primal fears, served up courtesy of luridly disturbing scenes of sexual violence, to guide us into accepting the filmmakers’ case for vigilante justice. In truth, I’m less offended by the filmmakers’ views than I am by the cheap and exploitative route they take to try to get us in their corner.

After a little opening set-up establishing the happy family life of suburban mom Karen (Sally Field), we’re dumped straight into a harrowing scene of every parent’s worst nightmare, as Karen is stuck in traffic while on the phone with her eldest teenage daughter Julie (Olivia Burnette) and is suddenly plunged into listening helplessly while her daughter is brutally raped and murdered by an intruder. Detective Denillo (Joe Mantegna) quickly finds the killer, a thorough lowlife named Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland), who is obviously guilty in a seemingly open-and-shut case complete with DNA and semen samples, but when Doob is released on a court technicality, Karen becomes a woman obsessed. Her husband Mack (Ed Harris) tries to move on with their lives as best he can and focus on their young daughter Megan (Alexandra Kyle), but Karen is lost in a fog of grief and rage, taking shooting and self-defense lessons and joining a support group for parents of murdered children, through which she bonds with a mother in a similar situation, Angel (Charlyane Woodard) and gets in touch with a shadowy network of those who’ve decided to take the law into their own hands. To this end, Karen makes a new hobby of tailing Doob, but unsurprisingly, the hunter risks becoming the hunted.

Eye for an Eye feels both distastefully exploitative and intellectually disingenuous. The movie stacks the deck in Karen’s favor at every turn by building Doob up as such a one-dimensionally vile, despicable, worthless human being that it assumes no one could possibly dispute that he deserves vigilante comeuppance (as an example of his cartoonish villainy, he pours hot coffee on a dog). The cops and lawyers onhand are portrayed as borderline useless, representatives of an ineffectual system that good citizens who’ve been terribly wronged cannot depend on to have their back. Unlike the cops, we are given the dubious privilege of being treated to another scene—which also feels icky and gratuitous—of Doob in the act of further raping and murdering. And yet, after doing everything it possibly can to stack the deck in favor of vigilante justice, the climax is a copout in the way it twists itself up in a pretzel by manufacturing a way to have its cake and eat it too, giving the audience what they want while at least technically letting the heroine off the hook, in a contrivance that feels disingenuous. The movie gives just a dash of lip service to an opposing argument delivered by Karen’s support group friend Angel, but it feels as perfunctory as it is. None of which is to say that the movie is completely ineffective on a technical level; the harrowing opening scene is all-too-effective in serving up every parent’s worst nightmare. But a scene depicting the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl to play to audience emotions feels icky, and the movie also feels icky again later when, for no real necessary reason except to reaffirm the villain’s villainy, I guess, we’re treated to watching Doob rape and kill again. There are a few small moments that feel more genuine. The early aftermath of Karen struggling to process her devastation has some moments that feel believable (she freaks out on her well-meaning young daughter after she washes a pillow she spilled food on, because it’s now lost Julie’s lingering scent). There’s two darkly semi-comic scenes in which Karen, emboldened by her new martial arts training, accidentally assaults an innocent bystander she suspected was following her, and (invigorated by proving to herself that she can beat up a man) has such aggressive, dominant sex with her mild-mannered husband that he can’t handle it. And Field manages to make a moment believable where Karen, at Julie’s memorial service, sees an obnoxious relative trip in front of her and rushes into the bathroom for a moment of release in involuntary hysterical laughter. But any little human moments that feel more down-to-earth and true-to-life can’t compensate for a script that pushes its agenda with cheap manipulation of the crudest sort from opening to climax.

Eye for an Eye (1996) - Rotten Tomatoes

Sally Field, it must be said, gives a strong, committed performance, imbuing Karen with as much credibility and conviction as can be expected and capably navigating her emotional arc of a mild-mannered suburban mom whose uneventful life is shattered by a nightmarish event, who is lost in a haze of borderline unbalanced grief until finding a dubious outlet in an obsession with stalking the man responsible. Alas, while Field manages to make Karen convincing—or as convincing as she can be—the rest of the cast isn’t up to the same level. Ed Harris’ customary stoic demeanor, which works well in some roles (he’s especially good at playing stern, no-nonsense military men), here has the unfortunate effect of making him face his stepdaughter’s horrific rape and murder without hardly seeming to react, or at least not as much as we’d expect (in contrast to Field, who is convincingly grief-stricken). There’s a tricky line between making a character come across as emotionally suppressed and simply emotionless. Joe Mantegna’s ineffectual cop is overplayed and cheesy, like Mantegna prepared for the role by watching too many hard-boiled noir detectives (he says things like “stay out of my city”). Kiefer Sutherland gets what could be seen, depending on one’s perspective, as either the thankless or juicy role of the one-dimensional villain, who swaggers around in chains and tattoos (the movie cynically playing on social stereotypes of people with tattoos being criminals) and generally greasing it up until he practically oozes sleaze from his pores (considering the one-note “character” he’s assigned to play, how is anyone supposed to judge whether this is a good or bad performance?). Smaller roles include Beverly D’Angelo as Karen’s best friend, Charlayne Woodard as her new friend at the support group, and character actors Philip Baker Hall and Keith David in thankless walk-on roles.

The thing that is most repugnant about Eye for an Eye is not its simplistic ham-handedness, or any of its contrived screenwriting, but the way it crudely exploits every parent’s worst nightmare in service of a schlocky B-level thriller. Apart from being merely dumb, it feels nasty and mean-spirited. Mere bad movies are forgettable; Eye for an Eye‘s bad aftertaste lingers unpleasantly in the memory.

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