ARCHIVE Take 61: Eyes Wide Shut

Jessie McAskill
6 min readMar 17, 2016

In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the top 100 American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. Inspired by post movie talks with JoeBear and Scott, I’ve decided to explore these movies one by one and write up some thoughts on each one. I’ll be posting where to catch the film screenings in the Boston area, and I hope that someone (anyone??) will join me in watching and reading and thinking about what makes these movies the pillars of American cinematic achievement. Each essay will run rampant with spoilers, and is best enjoyed after watching the film.

This week, #61 Eyes Wide Shut (1999), dir. by Stanley Kubrick. Available to rent on iTunes, Google, and Amazon. Also available to stream on Netflix.

Eyes Wide Shut is a feat in sleight of hand. Right when you think you’ve got a beat on the trick, or that you’ve deciphered the biggest secrets, up comes another bend down the rabbit hole. It is Stanley Kubrick’s final and most post modern film, primarily focused on sex and status, knowledge and belief. The effect of displaying brazen sexuality shielded behind the guise of opulence and exclusivity is hypnotizing for the viewer, as well as Dr. Bill Hartford. The structure of the movie leaves us both in the dark, and there is a dual effort to hunting down clues to the plot while also mentally cataloging hints at the self referential code carved into the narrative by Kubrick, keeping the story suspended and always just out of reach. That twisted mirror image of Bill’s experience in the film and ours viewing it creates a haunting and taut atmosphere from the opening scene to the final credits.

In both of my previous pieces about Kubrick’s movies I suggested that he often focused on evolution, and demonstrating that while the set dressing will vary, the primal instincts behind most actions remain the same. That primordial theme is inherent to Eyes Wide Shut and is addressed explicitly a few times. Both Bill and his wife Alice are beautiful people and almost immediately we see them pulled apart and sexualized by a variety of suitors. Later, they’ll have a heated conversation that covers a lot of ground, but most predominantly focuses on infidelity and the existence of female desire, which Bill seems to deny:

“Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else!

Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.

Alice: If you men only knew.”

This movie illustrates the overlap between the basic human desires for consumption and ritual, and the persistent aura of Christmas serves as reminder of that interplay. There is Christian imagery used extensively throughout the orgy scene, the concept of the virgin mother is referenced multiple times, as well as consistent use of symbols like the Christmas tree borrowed from paganism to represent everlasting life. But, there is also the modern tradition of Christmas including commerce, gift giving, and splurging referenced, reminding us that religion and consumption are inextricable from one another.

The marriage between Alice and Bill is another example of humanity’s association of ritual and tradition with evolutionary instincts — their marriage is difficult and both seem to experience a sense of sacrifice because of their commitment to one another. Alice wants Bill to be jealous and also to understand her own amorous urges. Knowing that the actors were married in real life, lends their scenes together a quality of desperation and tense realism. It has to be acknowledged that as much as Tom Cruise has been spurned due to his actions off-screen, he and Nicole Kidman are excellent in this movie and their rise to prominence in Hollywood happened for a very good reason. The focus of this film is often put on the tone and flash of the secret society Bill encounters, but when stripped of it’s ostentatiousness the players in that group have the same basic motives as all of humanity: get laid, climb socially, be respected, eat, drink, get high. Alice wants Bill to recognize her as human, by validating her desire for these same things.

We often mention on the podcast that certain Hollywood actors have become nearly inextricable from their public personas, and I think that invoking that feeling was exactly Kubrick’s intention when he chose to cast Tom Cruise as a man entranced by a cult, opposite his real life wife, Nicole Kidman. Upending the Hollywood hype machine adds a unique depth to the film that is already nuanced and textured enough to leave many people confused or turned off. Tom Cruise’s relationship to Scientology was public knowledge when this movie premiered in 1999, but the organization still maintained some mystery until Janet Reitman’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone article in 2006. We know now that the institution is structured in tiers, where the closer to the top of the pyramid a member climbs, the more access to privileged information they are permitted access to. The value of that information is debatable at best, but the structure of the hierarchy is designed to be intoxicating and addictive — some say to the degree of brain washing.

The broad strokes of a Scientologist’s experience are almost identical to Bill’s in the film. His obsession with the secret society and his hunt for the knowledge that eludes him is the engine pushing forward the plot. But, just like Tom Cruise the Scientologist, the question always remains how much truth there is to that knowledge, and what value it holds for him. At the end of the movie, Victor Ziegler suggests that Bill had imagined most of the details, and for all the aura of mystery, there was little more to the gathering than fantasy, and his plain speak seems to snap Bill out of the haze of fixation and he returns to his wife. This exchange feels like the lights coming on at the end of a ceremony, the smoke and mirrors are removed and the illusion is revealed. The title Eyes Wide Shut accentuates the coexistence of knowledge and misbelief, and that incongruity supports an existence where someone seeking the truth might be seeing only deeper into their own delusions. Seeing may be believing, but it can also be worlds away from knowing.

“Bill, suppose I told you that… that everything that happened to you there… the threats, the- the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention, suppose I said that all of that… was staged. That it was a kind of charade. That it was fake.”

— Victor Ziegler

There has been a lot written and researched about the symbols embedded throughout this movie, and a lot of time spent discussing the conspiracy theories regarding Kubrick’s sudden death after the release of this film. I love the specter of the Illuminati as much as anyone, and that world of exclusivity and wealth is like catnip for many of us who long for an inside look at the private lives of people we know only through many degrees of separation. Because of this, I wonder if this film served asa final prank by Kubrick (who was a recluse himself, desperate to remain out of the public eye) on those of us who are thirsty to know what we feel ostracized from, when ultimately those lives are as elemental as our own. He allows us to feel like we’ve gained access to the inner circle, only to tell us later that it was all an illusion created to scare and tease us. We and Bill are all subject to the same yearning to be included and our trip through the looking glass ends the same way, a big reveal showing that the reflection was of ourselves all along.

Originally published at