Eyes Wide Shut, 20 years later

It’s been twenty years since Stanley Kubrick put out his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut. This film made headlines in the months leading up to its July release date for many reasons. First of all, it was the first movie Kubrick released since Full Metal Jacket, 12 years earlier. Secondly, it starred then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were probably the biggest power couple in Hollywood at the time. The movie was also noted in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest continuous shoot (400 days), which is saying something, since Kubrick productions were already well-known for being lengthy.

The movie’s notoriety would only increase with Kubrick’s passing on March 7, 1999, only six days after filming was completed. Also like other Kubrick films, the movie would draw a mixed response once it was released, but more on that in a moment.

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The story, based on the Arthur Schnitzler novella Traumnovelle, begins in New York City with Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) and his wife Alice (Kidman) getting ready to go to a Christmas party, leaving their daughter Helena with a babysitter. Upon arriving at the party, they’re greeted by their host Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), who’s one of Bill’s regulars.

Bill and Alice are soon dancing when Bill recognizes the piano player, one Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), whom Bill attended medical school with. When the band announces that they’re taking a short break, Bill takes the time to get reacquainted with Nick, while Alice goes off to the bathroom.

The next scene has Alice, alone with a glass of champagne, catching the eye of another guest named Sandor Szavost, who persuades Alice to dance with him. She tells him she was once an art curator until the museum that employed her went out of business. At the same time, Bill is chatting it up with two models, one of whom remembers Bill from a time when he gave her a handkerchief after she got debris in her eye while walking down the street. The Harfords make brief eye contact as they continue their respective conversations.

The models try to entice Bill into going with them to “where the rainbow ends.” Bill is hesitant, but is unwillingly given a hand when one of Victor’s butlers shows up to say that Victor needs Bill’s help upstairs.

Bill is led into a bathroom, where a partially dressed Victor shows him a naked lady named Mandy on the floor who’s overdosed. Victor says she took heroin and cocaine before Bill manages to slowly revive her by talking to her. Victor is grateful that Mandy was revived, while Bill advises her to get therapy before instructing Victor to wait until she’s well enough to go home.

At the same time, Sandor is being more and more flirtatious with Alice. But noting how intoxicated she is, she declines any such offers, explaining that she’s married. But she does bid him farewell by kissing her finger and touching his lips with it. The Harfords’ evening ends with Bill and Alice at home, making out naked in front of their bedroom mirror, although Alice’s thoughts appears to be elsewhere.

The next day begins with Bill starting his work day at his medical office, while Alice is at home with Helena. Later in the day, after putting Helena to bed, Bill and Alice decide to chill out by smoking pot in their bedroom. Alice begins asking Bill if anything happened between him and the two models he was chatting with. He says no, and explains that he disappeared for a while because Victor needed help. Alice, likewise, says that she was chatting with a friend of Victor’s who obviously wanted sex. Bill says his intentions aren’t surprising, since Alice is hot, which leads to their chat becoming an argument.

Bill eventually tells Alice that he knows she wouldn’t be unfaithful to him. This causes Alice to laugh before taking a more serious tone while seated on the carpet. She tells him that during a vacation they took the previous year with Helena, Alice briefly eyed a navy officer, and for a moment fantasized about being with him, even if it meant leaving Bill and Helena.

Bill is clearly stunned by this revelation, but the phone rings before he can react. The call is from the daughter of one of Bill’s patients who’s just died, and the family is requesting Bill’s presence at his home. But Bill begins to imagine Alice having sex with someone dressed in a navy uniform during his cab ride there. Ironically, the patient’s daughter begins kissing Bill when he attempts to offer his condolences.

Instead of heading back home, Bill decides to walk the streets where he encounters a girl named Domino (Vinessa Shaw), who invites Bill into her nearby apartment. Bill agrees to pay her money for some passion, but just as they kiss, Alice calls. Bill tells her that he’s busy with the family of the deceased patient. After hanging up, he decides that he should leave, although he does give Domino her promised money.

But Bill decides to continue his long walk, winding up at the jazz club where his piano player friend Nick told him he’d be playing at. Going inside, Bill gets a table, and after the band plays, Nick joins him. He tells Bill that his family is in Oregon, and then Nick’s phone rings. With Bill’s help, Nick is able to write down the word “Fidelio” on a napkin. He soon explains to Bill that it’s the password to get into a secret gathering at a mansion in another part of town, where Nick is set to play the piano blindfolded. Bill expresses interest in going, but Nick informs him that he would need to wear a mask and a costume.

Perhaps the longest night ever in a movie continues as Bill decides to next pay a visit to Rainbow Fashions, run by a client of his. But when he buzzes the apartment number, a stranger, Mr. Milich, informs him that he’s the new owner and the previous one now lives in Chicago. However, Bill doesn’t let that stop him from offering Milich a nice amount of cash to get a costume and mask from his store.

Bill’s shopping is interrupted when Milich catches two scantly clad men hiding with his scantly clad daughter (Leelee Sobieski).

With costume and mask in hand, Bill takes another taxi to the mansion and gets inside, asking the taxi driver to wait as long as he can because Bill doesn’t know how long he’ll be inside. So it’s a good thing Bill’s as rich as he is.

The get-together turns out to be a big orgy, with everyone masked and all the ladies topless (but wearing masks). One such woman informs Bill that he should get the hell out. Bill ignores this advice, which leads to him being dragged in front of the hosts of the party. They ask Bill for the other password, and when Bill says he doesn’t know it, they tell him to get undressed. Fortunately, the woman who earlier tried to warn Bill intervenes on his behalf. The hosts grudgingly allow Bill to leave, but warn him not to reveal what he’s seen here.

Bill finally arrives home as morning approaches. He awakens Alice, who was laughing in her sleep. But once awakened, she starts crying and telling Bill about her dream, which involved her laughing at Bill when he saw her having sex with numerous men. Just the kind of thing one wants to hear to start their day.

Later, Bill returns the costume he rented, but informs Milich that he misplaced the mask. Milich informs Bill that he sold his daughter into prostitution (thanks, Dad), but Bill is still haunted by his experience and attempts to contact Nick again. The clerk at a hotel informs Bill that Nick checked out that morning with a bruise on his face and accompanied by two men. Nick also unsuccessfully attempted to pass a note to the clerk. Bill then returns to the mansion, only to find the front gate closed. A man walks up and passes a note to Bill through the gate, which turns out to be a warning for Bill to keep away.

He returns home and sees Alice spending time with Helena. The couple smile at each other, with Bill clearly wondering what Alice really has on her mind.

Later on, Bill attempts to see Domino again, only for her roommate (who Bill attempts to put the moves on after she attempts the same) to inform him that Domino was diagnosed with HIV. Bill’s bizarre week continues as he later finds out via a newspaper that a beauty queen OD’d recently. He recognizes the person as Mandy, and confirms this after going to the morgue to see her body.

Victor then asks Bill to come to his house. Once there, he reveals to Bill that he was one of the people at the orgy, and deduced that Bill got in thanks to Nick. Victor adds that the threats to Bill were just a way to shut him up, and nothing more. After some forceful questioning from Bill about the bizarre circumstances surrounding the event, Victor adamantly states that Nick is safe at home now, and Mandy simply OD’d. He also says that her dying that way was only inevitable.

While still uncertain, Bill returns home, only to find his mask next to a sleeping Alice on their bed. He breaks down, waking her up and promising to tell her everything. He apparently does so, because the next shot is of Alice looking like she’s been crying hard as well. The couple is later walking in a toy store with Helena. Alice quietly tells Bill that they should be grateful that things didn’t go any further for either of them. While she’s not quite as certain as Bill about the future, the film ends with her saying that the one thing they should do next is “Fuck.”

Many criticized Cruise’s performance in the film, and indeed, the way he repeats what others say numerous times throughout the movie is hard to ignore. But overall, he does a good job at playing someone who takes everything in his life for granted, including his marriage. Also interesting are the lengths Bill is willing to go just for the chance to get back at Alice in some way for the thoughts she revealed she once had.

Pollack also does a good job, especially in his final scene, as it’s actually hard to tell if he’s being honest with Bill. Kidman, who was truly starting to ascend the Hollywood ladder on her own terms at this point (as opposed to just being Mrs. Tom Cruise), is also memorable if underused, especially in the moment where she bursts Bill’s bubble with her revelation. The way she delivers the final word of the film turns out to be a wonderfully subtle but still-eyebrow raising way of ending Kubrick’s career.

The fact that both Bill and Alice are willing to move on together gives this film a slightly more upbeat ending than I was expecting. Inversely, what would’ve been Kubrick’s next film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, ends up having a more downbeat ending than I was expecting. Eyes Wide Shut would gain further notoriety the same year A.I. was released, when Cruise and Kidman divorced. I’ve read a number of articles after the fact stating that their experiences making this movie, directly or indirectly, led to the collapse of their marriage.

But Kidman’s career has kept going strong, including winning an Oscar for The Hours and an Emmy for the TV series Big Little Lies. While Cruise later had memorable roles in Magnolia, Minority Report, Collateral, and War of the Worlds, his career in recent years has mainly consisted of sequels to Mission: Impossible and Jack Reacher, but hey, he has to pay Katie Holmes that alimony somehow.

As for the film itself, some dislike it, while others love it. Martin Scorsese listed it in his top 10 films from the 1990s. Regardless, like many of Kubrick’s films, it’s worth repeat viewings.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is a western: The Search West is available now from Amazon.

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  • Murry Chang

    When I started to read this review, I thought ‘Ya know, I haven’t seen this film since it came out, maybe it’s not as bad as I remembered it being, maybe I should give it another try.’ After reading the review I take it back: This review paints it as exactly as boring and nonsensical as I remember it being.

    • Xander

      Yeah, I came into the movie late when it was on some premium channel, so I thought I’d check it out given that it was Kubrick’s last movie and the other hype surrounding it. I was disappointed by every aspect of the movie. I mean it was gorgeously shot, but that was about it. I wonder if some of it came from it being edited without Kubrick’s full input, but I can’t imagine there was a lack of footage to use.

      • Murry Chang

        Yeah I’ll give the cinematography its due, the movie definitely looks amazing.

  • Greenhornet

    “…and then Nick’s phone rings.”
    Amazingly, this movie accurately predicts what a PAIN in the nether regions cell phones will become.