Up on the screen or down on the page, the private eye is pulp fiction's ultimate outsider. Armed with an array of cameras and microphones, he observes his fellow man with unnatural detachment, banned by definition from interacting with society. But what if the voyeuristic loner sheds his objective status?
That's the notion which drives Stephan Elliott's flashy but noticeably empty thriller, adapted from Marc Behm's cult novel (published in 1980 and described by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner as "a nihilistic road movie: Sam Spade meets Badlands"). The film suggests that a life filled with hours of isolation, surrounded only by hi-tech gadgetry, is enough to shove anyone over the edge, and McGregor successfully embodies the agent's pitiful desperation and borderline madness.
Aching for some human contact, this archetypal spectator redefines himself first as a guardian angel, tying up the loose ends which could lead to the capture of the femme fatale he's tracking. But when it seems that she's getting her life together and readying herself for marriage, he intervenes more devilishly, ensuring that she remains root-less. In fact, The Eye, who is supposedly the representative of the law, shows more sociopathic tendencies than his quarry.
One of the film's inherent flaws is that it is little more than a sequence of very similar scenarios: she does something, he steps in, they move on. For variation, the characters cross the length and breadth of America, with each city and state marked in The Eye's collection of snowglobe ornaments. And so, when the climax plays out in snowy Alaska, the film retreats within an ornament-like version of itself. That's the ultimate moment of disconnection - - a brave, self-referential move by Elliott, but sadly one that's likely to lose more of the audience than it wins over.
As unique as it is infuriating, Eye Of The Beholder never really clarifies its themes or holds us captive with its story. However, it's on surer ground when Elliott distracts us with visual tricks, making for a pulp B-movie shot with arthouse panache.