‘Eyes Wide Shut’ at 20: A Master Filmmaker’s Incomplete Last Film

Warner Bros.

July 16th marks the 20th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, production plagued with issues as filming went on much longer than expected, hitting an unheard total of 400 days (a world record for a continuous film shoot). Kubrick, ever the perfectionist, required a large number of takes from his actors, leaving cast and crew exhausted. However, the film’s highly anticipated production was completely thrown into disarray when Stanley Kubrick died on March 7th, 1999 (four months before Eyes Wide Shut’s release date). Upon its release, the film polarized viewers. Some saw it as a brilliant film and a fitting farewell to the revered artist. Others saw it as an unfinished work that wasn’t fully realized; suffering from studio interference after Kubrick’s death. 20 years later, Eyes Wide Shut still continues to entrance audiences as it is discussed and analyzed to a degree that no doubt would have pleased the challenging director. 

The plot centers on a wealthy married couple, Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) and Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman). While attending a Christmas party, both Alice and William are tempted by other partygoers to cheat on their spouse. While neither cheats, the two have an intense argument once they get home. Aided by jealousy and marijuana, Alice tells William about an incident years earlier where she became enamored with another man. Hearing this story destroys William, who then leaves the house to treat a patient. William, plagued by the visions in his head of his wife’s fantastical adultery, goes out into the city and becomes entangled in a dark, sexual underworld he didn’t know existed.

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On its surface, Eyes Wide Shut appears to be a fairly straightforward drama. As we follow Dr. Harford, we see him tempted over and over again by women. It seems like every woman he comes into contact with falls head-over-heels the second they lock eyes with him. Dr. Harford bounces from place to place, using his wealth and status to get anything he wants. As the night unfolds, it is clear he is in way over his head. While his status might have helped him succeed in one realm of the elite, this new reality proves difficult. The film comes off as a story of a man whose jealousy and quest to finally cheat on his wife leads him into trouble.

After multiple viewings, Eyes Wide Shut plays differently. It is impossible not to notice how every woman is instantly completely infatuated with Dr. Harford. While this is a 1999 Tom Cruise we are talking about here, the near immediacy of their lust is hilariously over the top. Women he barely knows are violently throwing themselves at him, offering to leave their husbands so they can run off together. On first viewing, the characterization of female characters is troubling. Every woman becomes putty in his hands, willing to do absolutely anything and everything for him. After repeated viewings, the behavior of characters interacting with Harford is just too extreme to take seriously and become comedic. For example, one scene where he tries to get information out of a hotel clerk played by Alan Cumming is too hilarious. 

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The characters reactions to Harford is so outlandish that it is almost as if we are seeing the world through Harford’s eyes and not necessarily reality. While Kubrick has never necessarily been known for featuring strong female characters in his films, it is clear he has no real reverence for William. As the night progresses, William is shown to be more and more desperate to rid himself of the thoughts of his wife’s hypothetical adultery. The film seems to pity William, not treat him like a gift to women. The whole thing comes off as William’s dream-world. One flash of a smile and he can get anything or anyone he wants. While the fact that every woman seems to be a sexual object causes viewers to pause, these particular scenes are just too surreal to be taken at face value.

Cruise, of course, is great here, flipping effortlessly between a man who uses his looks and wealth to get anything he wants, and later a man who seems to be losing total control. Eyes Wide Shut and 2000’s Magnolia are possibly the last few times Cruise displayed phenomenal performance. Both films show a vulnerability that almost seems impossible, now that audiences attribute Cruise as a death-defying stuntman who doesn’t seem to age. It is also especially interesting to think that this was Cruise’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed and box-office smash hit Jerry Maguire. Cruise’s character here is a large departure from the character who wanted Cuba Gooding Jr. to “show (him) the money” to the scummy adulterer here. One of the most important aspects of the character of Harford is that he is only able to charm part of the way into the new world that is opening up in front of him. There is a breaking point and when it does no amount of charm will get him out of a major spiral. In Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise is allowed to be slimy and manipulative for most of the film, and become completely destroyed at the end. It might be his best performance.

Warner Bros.

Despite all the praise for Cruise, Kidman gives the best performance in this film. Her performance is full of depth, much of which is especially noticeable after careful rewatches. She is also given a chance to deliver one of the most destructive monologues in film history when she lays out the details of her fantasy to William. For a director known for visually impressive moments, it is one Kubrick’s of his most perfectly executed scenes of dialogue. Kidman completely owns the entire scene, derailing William to the degree that the audience can’t help but be completely intimidated. The fact that Kidman wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award is deeply unfortunate. (The 2000 Oscars nominated Meryl Streep for the completely ho-hum drama Music of the Heart. That nomination should have gone to Kidman instead.) Instead, Eyes Wide Shut received no nominations, and Kidman would have to wait until 2002’s The Hours to get her much-deserved award.

Kubrick had turned in a final cut of Eyes Wide Shut six days before his death. The thing is, “final” often didn’t mean “the very last” to Kubrick. He notoriously cut 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, even after public viewings. Four more months of living would have given Kubrick a large amount of time to tinker with the project he had been working on since 1996. On top of that, production elements like the film’s sound design and color grading hadn’t been finalized. While Kubrick supplied notes that were said to be detailed enough to finish the project, no one can possibly know precisely what Kubrick would have wanted the final release to look like.

Stanley Kubrick, Sydney Pollack, and Tom Cruise on set. Warner Bros.

Eyes Wide Shut, sadly, doesn’t quite feel like a finished film. At 159 minutes, it is simply too long and meandering. The film hits its apex about 100 minutes in and then slowly continues for another hour. Kubrick, known for cutting large chunks of his films before release, could have easily cut several scenes and the film would have only improved. While the omnipresent fawning of women is occasionally funny, it all just becomes too much. A subplot where William propositions a prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) has some of the film’s best imagery but doesn’t really go anywhere. The story’s last act also is overlong and could have been tightened in a way that would have driven home the worry that William feels. In its current form, the final scenes of the film aren’t necessarily powerful and are more of a welcome ending. That said, none of these moments fully damage the film. They just take what could have been a “great” film and lower it down to “very good” territory. If this film had been made by any other director than Kubrick, this all might have been forgivable. The fact that this is the final picture by one of the most accomplished directors of all-time makes it easy to wish for more. If we couldn’t have additional films, why not make the last one perfect? 

If Eyes Wide Shut was a film that didn’t do much for you on your first viewing, use its 20th anniversary as an excuse to re-evaluate it. Go in attempting to find clues and patterns hidden throughout the film. Maybe even consider checking out the book Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film by Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams. Any movie that can garner a whole book devoted to it is definitely worth diving deeper into. Hopefully, you won’t come away as obsessed as William. Maybe you just might.

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