Eye of God
directed by Tim Blake Nelson
(Peachtree/Castle Hill, 1996)

Eye of God opens with the soothing voice of veteran actor Hal Holbrook.

"I always knew I would devote my life to clarity," Holbrook, in the person of Sheriff Sam Rogers, muses. It's nearly the last soothing thing you'll hear from him or from Eye of God for the next hour and 24 minutes.

A lot of people in Kingfisher, Okla., have devoted their lives to clarity, it seems, but the more they seek it, the more confusing things gets. At the epicenter of all this confusion is a young woman named Ainsley DuPree (Martha Plimpton).

Ainsley, who lost her father in an oil-rig fire when she was 13, hopes the man she's met through a personals column will help her make something of her life beyond working in a fast-food joint. The man, ex-con Jack Stillings (Kevin Anderson), thinks he's found the key to clarity as well, with his jailhouse conversion to fundamentalist Christianity.

Things go from very good to very bad very quickly for Ainsley and Jack after Ainsley loses her job and Jack decides it's Ainsley's duty to stay home and have a child. Then all hell breaks loose -- despite the omnipresence of the Lord -- when Ainsley meets Tommy Spencer (Nick Stahl), a 14-year-old who's never recovered from his mother's suicide.

It's Tommy who kicks off the external action of Eye of God, when he's found wandering down a road in Kingfisher covered with blood. Ainsley's body is found soon afterward, and the sheriff's men are ready to lock up Tommy for life. But Sheriff Sam's need for clarity won't let him.

Eye of God builds to one of the most powerful images in recent cinema. Unfortunately, it builds erratically. Rather than opt for a simple beginning-to-end narrative, writer-director Tim Blake Nelson starts near the end, flashes back to near the beginning and spends the next 84 minutes jumping back and forth into several time periods in between to make connections. To a certain extent, that's necessary. It's the only way Nelson can leave us that last -- and lasting -- image. But for working that way Nelson pays a price: at times he leaves viewers feeling as confused as everyone else in Kingfisher; at other times he leaves them feeling manipulated.

Films like Eye of God grow only out of intense personal experience. Consequently, when they hit home, they have a moving and cathartic effect.

Nelson won the American Independent Award for Eye of God at the 1997 Seattle International Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. It's crisply photographed and subtly acted all around, and it has a lot to say about lots of things, even if some of those things never become entirely clear. Films that achieved much less have won multiple Oscars.

"As a kid, it baffled me how God could know so much," Holbrook concludes, as the camera pans from one revealing shot of Kingfisher to the next. Reviewers sometimes say the same about filmmakers.

Warning: Eye of God contains scenes of domestic abuse and an abortion. Some people may find it difficult to watch.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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