The term "neo-noir" best defines "Eye of the Beholder," a dark, ultimately unsatisfying thriller written and directed by Stephan Elliott. As it's been adapted from Marc Behm's 1980 novel of psychological suspense, the intriguingly photographed game of cat and mouse sticks to the rules of the category that one expert recently outlined for the New York Times.
"Seduction, betrayal and greed -- those had to be major themes," explained Film Forum repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein, whose New York movie theater is hosting a seven-week neo-noir festival this winter. "And a good dose of sex and sadistic violence."
Elliott, the Australian filmmaker who brought us the offbeat, cross-dressing comedy, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," includes all those elements in his film, as well as a series of nods to the Hitchcockian school of suspense: "Eye of the Beholder" is littered with references (some subtle and some blatant) to "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "Strangers on a Train." There's also a sidelong glance at Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," traces of any number of movies about detective work gone awry and a clip of "The Wasp Woman," Roger Corman's 1959 B-horror flick about a beauty who's transformed into a monster with a deadly sting.
Like old-school noir, "Eye of the Beholder" has a lovely, icy but complicated femme fatale. Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd) is an emotionally damaged woman of 1,000 disguises and as many aliases. A clever manipulator of others, she's able to drastically change her appearance with the help of a giant wig collection and 46 different Valentino outfits. And she may be blackmailing the son of a dignitary.
Her pursuer is a British intelligence superagent known as the Eye (Ewan McGregor). He's a doggedly determined loner, a man driven by a sense of mission and haunted by visions of his young daughter. (If you're reminded of "The Sixth Sense," you're not alone.) His wife and child, it's vaguely posited, were lost to him eight years earlier as a result of neglect, and he's since been slipping into a sinkhole of melancholy and regret. His only connection to the real world is through a chirpy video-phone dispatcher who's played by pop star K.D. Lang (doing her best in a curiously underdeveloped role).
Armed with the latest high-tech audiovisual snooping equipment, The Eye inadvertently observes one particularly bloody murder. He's soon in hot pursuit of the culprit, using his state-of-the-art gadgets to follow the criminal from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and, finally, Alaska.
The film was shot mostly in Montreal, and its American cityscapes were created with the help of computer-generated imagery. That choice accounts in part for the strange yet oddly familiar look of the film. Something isn't quite right with these surroundings, and that has everything to do with the mental state of the Eye, whose point of view dominates the narrative.
Along the way, the pursuer falls into an obsession with his quarry, essentially shucking off his official duties in favor of another goal: saving the object of his newfound affection from forces that might do her in. As his wobbly reasoning tells him, rescuing Joanna may compensate for his failure to hold on to his family.
Largely a disconnected, unresolved duet between the characters played by McGregor and Judd, "Eye of the Beholder" allows a little room for a couple of other turns by familiar faces. Jason Priestley, best known as the likable, fresh-faced Brandon on TV's "Beverly Hills 90210," plays against type as a scuzzy, violent, bottle-blonde drifter named Gary. Veteran actress Genevieve Bujold shows up as Dr. Brault, a slightly sinister psychiatrist who's proud of her former charge's success. "I taught her how to survive," she boasts. "Kill or be killed."
Strange incidents and bizarre coincidences pile up with the corpses in "Eye of the Beholder," and both the Eye and Joanna conclude their unspoken courtship in a manner that's as violent and unpredictable as the rest of the story. The ambitious thriller is certainly stylish, and spiked with appealing doses of eroticism and mystery. But there's no real pay-off. Elliott takes us on a fast and furious trip only to figuratively lead us off the edge of a cliff, with nothing but oblivion ahead. Bereft of a genuinely satisfying ending, he rolls the closing credits and hopes for the best. That may be noir, but it's hardly nourishing.