Beholder is the Patty Hearst of movies: a bright beginning, full of promise, that just goes horribly, horribly wrong.
It starts with some standard spy/noir/thriller trappings. Ewan McGregor is The Eye, an investigator for some shadowy government agency. His life is accoutered with an assortment of high-tech eavesdropping devices, strung together through a briefcase computer that hooks him up with "Hilary," a stereotypically Moneypennyesque coordinator at S.G.A. (the Shadowy Government Agency).
Perhaps the pointlessly bizarre casting of non-actress (and e.e. cummings manqué) k.d. lang as Hilary should have been a tip off that this movie was going to take the kind of bold risks that turned Heaven's Gate into a paradigm for a certain kind of perfection, but I was willing to let it slide because the opening sequences were so effectively moody and mysterious.
The Eye gets an assignment to investigate a woman who may be blackmailing the head of the S.G.A. As he follows her his young daughter tags along, oddly skipping in and out of the scenes that he's photographing. All too quickly director Stephan Elliot tips his hand and makes it clear that the daughter is a hallucination, that The Eye is suffering from delusions in the wake of losing his family, and that this isn't going to be a mystery, but rather a psycho-drama.
OK, there are plenty of good psycho-dramas. Even some good psycho-drama/mysteries, with Hitchcock's Vertigo being the prime example. So, of course, The Eye starts hanging around in the top of a church tower, in the belfry, just so we know what movies are being referenced. And he listens on one side of a bathroom wall while a murder takes place on the other, in a scene lifted directly from Francis Ford Coppola's classic mystery/psychodrama The Conversation. But a collection of scenes from great movies is not the same thing as a great movie. The vast majority of great movies have "plots," cohesive stories that exhibit and resolve conflicts.
Thrillers and mysteries, especially, live and die by plots. Psychodramas are actually aided and abetted by plots as well. And Eye of the Beholder seems to start off with a plot. There's a guy, some listening gear, and a woman who gets naked and kills guys. Actually, that's one of the better bets in the drawer full of standard plots, especially when the woman is Ashley Judd, who, let's face it, could easily convince most men to allow her to get naked and kill them.
However, about 20 minutes into the movie, the plot disappears as mysteriously and completely as Billy Ray Cyrus's career. It's as though the director decided to hand the movie over to his nephew, the one who just finished his first semester at the hip northeastern college where he fell in with a bunch of "artists" who convinced him that things like sense and narrative were tools of the patriarchy, so why not just make a movie that, like real life, has no neat connections and resolutions?
Of course, watching "real life" is like watching someone watch television. And watching Eye of the Beholder mostly involves watching Ewan McGregor watch Ashley Judd. Since the prime interest in that sort of thing seems to be the naked murder gig, our director, baffling audience anticipation, drops that whole schtick after about 30 minutes in order to allow Judd's serial-killing character to settle down with a nice man, open a little shop in San Francisco, and get married and start a family.
That, my friends, is great viewing. Here's Ashley doing a little shopping; here she is complimenting her husband on his necktie; here she is ringing up a customer. Just like, oh yes, real life.
After this stunningly great decision, writer/director Elliot tries to make amends by throwing in some gratuitous heroin usage and violence against women, always popular fallbacks for the flailing film. Sadly, even these fail to rescue Eye from the hopeless miasma of "who cares" that it has slid into.
The final scene is perhaps the only thing that made sitting through the previous hour worthwhile. It was the only time I had ever witnessed an entire audience burst into laughter at a joke that was obviously on them. The film simply ends, at what is essentially an arbitrary point, without resolving anything, after a series of arbitrary scenes occurring in arbitrary succession.
Which is not to say that no one will enjoy this film. Fans of attractive, blood-spattered, naked women murdering men in neckties will no doubt enjoy the first 20 minutes. Those who loved The Conversation (one of the best films of all time, actually) will enjoy the five-minute sequence that pays homage to that film. And those who are seriously wasted on dope may enjoy the relaxation of sitting in a theater watching a random sequence of events unfold on an illuminated screen.