Eye for an Eye is a B movie that somehow won the lottery and got an A movie cast and director. It's thoroughly shameless in the way it exploits a hot-button issue, then tries to disguise its intentions with a cloud of moral ambiguity. Ultimately, however, there is something perversely satisfying about the way it refuses to cop out once it sets its vigilante-justice plot into motion. At the very least, this is a movie with the courage of its convictions, however muddled those convictions might be.
Sally Field and Ed Harris star as the upper-middle-class parents of a teenage girl who is viciously raped and murdered in the living room of their well-tended suburban home by a grinning psychopath. Unfortunately, the psycho, played with frighteningly single-minded intensity by Kiefer Sutherland, has a great lawyer. Even more unfortunately, the evidence against the killer is handled improperly by the police. (Eye for an Eye is set in a Los Angeles where, obviously, no one learned anything from the bad example set by investigators in the O.J. Simpson case.) One thing leads to another, the case against the psycho is dismissed -- and the grieving parents are told there's nothing more the legal system can do.
Mack (Harris) is understandably furious. So furious, in fact, that he tries to choke the killer just a few seconds after the judge tosses the case out. As time goes by, however, Mack manages to sublimate his rage and frustration, if only so he can preserve his sanity and get on with his life.
But Karen (Field) is neither willing nor able to follow her husband's example. And even when Mack tries to suggest that she cool it so that she won't go crazy, she pointedly reminds him that while he was only the victim's stepfather, she was her mother. And that, we're encouraged to believe, is more than enough to grant her license to kill.
At first, Karen simply follows Robert Doob (Sutherland), maintaining surveillance like some TV detective. In time, she sees him checking out the home of a potential victim. But the cops can't do anything to stop Doob before he kills again. And even after he does, they're still bound by such legal niceties as evidence and probable cause. That's when Karen begins to notice that in her support group for parents of murdered children, a couple of the members may be channeling their rage into retribution. That's also when Karen begins to think that vigilantism isn't such a bad idea.
Pro John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man) directed Eye for an Eye, and he gives the film just enough tension and immediacy to make you think -- most of the time, at least -- that you're watching something that's actually worth your time. The murder of Karen's daughter is presented with a restraint that does little to diminish its power to make your flesh creep. Elsewhere in the film, Schlesinger dares to include a few touches of dark humor. As Karen empowers herself with karate lessons and target practice, she grows more aggressive, both on the street and -- much to her husband's discomfort -- in bed. Deep inside this manipulative melodrama, there lurks the germ of an idea for a wickedly funny social satire.
In most other respects, though, the screenplay by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa is as simplistic as the worst kind of talk-radio diatribe. Doob isn't merely a career criminal or a maladjusted sex offender -- he's the Antichrist. He menaces little girls, murders innocent women and sneers at grieving parents. And just so we don't underestimate the true depths of his maliciousness, Schlesinger even includes a scene where Doob pours hot coffee on a stray dog. No kidding.
Joe Denillo, the tough but honorable cop played by Joe Mantegna, is no match for such a vile creature. Why? Because, the movie implies, Denillo is hampered by all those namby-pamby Supreme Court decisions about the rights of suspects and bound by the very laws he's sworn to uphold. When Karen finally upbraids him angrily for what she sees as his impotence, even bleeding-heart liberals in the audience may be screaming, "Right on!"
To partially appease those liberals, and to keep from unduly ruffling anyone else's feathers, the filmmakers work overtime to cover all their bases. If one of the parents in Karen's support group is white, and he reveals that a black man killed his child, you can rest assured that we get an equal sampling of black parents with their own tales of woe. One of those black parents turns out to be a lesbian single mother. The character also has another surprise up her sleeve, but it wouldn't be fair to reveal it. Suffice it to say that she, like the movie itself, is intended to appeal to the broadest constituency possible.
Except for the heart-wrenching performance of Sally Field, an actress who somehow manages to remain underrated even after winning two Oscars, the best thing about Eye for an Eye is its ending. There are at least three different points in the movie's second half when Schlesinger and his screenwriters appear ready to take the easy way out. First, Karen's story is overwhelmed by a subplot involving undercover cops and novice vigilantes. Then there's a slight hint that another grieving survivor may do Karen's dirty work for her. Finally, in the closing minutes, Mack threatens to return home just in time to keep his wife from doing something rash. To give them credit, the filmmakers ultimately reject these detours and go straight ahead to the only honest conclusion possible for this kind of revenge fantasy.
After the fact, however, Schlesinger and company return to their fence-straddling, and try to suggest that maybe revenge isn't really all that sweet. (A nice touch: the movie's final image is a shot of Mantegna frozen in a kind of moral and physical twilight zone.) But this backpedaling comes off as just so much waffling, another sign that the filmmakers want to be all things to all people of all sociopolitical attitudes. If Bill Clinton were to write and direct a remake of Death Wish, it would probably look and sound a lot like Eye for an Eye.
Eye for an Eye. Directed by John Schlesinger.
With Sally Field, Ed Harris and Kiefer Sutherland.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.