Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, we’re singling out some of our favorite feature directorial debuts by actors.
Eye Of God (1997)
The character actor Tim Blake Nelson, usually seen playing either a dumb yokel (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or a corporate toady (Syriana), is also a surprisingly sharp writer-director. His most recent film, the Edward Norton comedy Leaves Of Grass (2009), was more good effort than good movie, but his grim concentration-camp drama, The Grey Zone (2001), about a group of Jews forced to get their own to the gas chambers in exchange for their lives, was a deeply affecting, extremely well-written film that too few people saw. (It took the unusual tack of casting well-known American actors—Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, David Arquette, Mira Sorvino—and letting them speak in whichever accent they were most comfortable with, which must have offended partisans of the Streep School.)
Yet Nelson’s best picture is still his debut, the barely released Eye Of God. It’s one of those tiny, unheralded films that can shock with its intelligence and integrity, and remind viewers that great works are still out there, waiting to be discovered. Set in a small, half-forgotten Oklahoma town, it stars the perpetually underused Martha Plimpton as a diner waitress who, out of sheer loneliness, has struck up a romantic correspondence with a violent convict turned born-again Christian (the even more underused Kevin Anderson). When the film begins, Plimpton nervously awaits Anderson’s release from the nearby penitentiary, after which she’ll take him home to live with her. It's already clear this arrangement isn't going to work out well for Plimpton: a brief prologue finds the town sheriff (Hal Holbrook) discovering a traumatized teenaged boy (Nick Stahl) wandering a field and covered in someone else’s blood. After some prodding, it comes out that a young woman has been raped and murdered, and not by Stahl.
The movie has a complex, kaleidoscopic structure: Nelson keeps alternating between past and present, gradually working his way toward the gruesome event at the story’s core. In this regard, Eye Of God bears surface similarities to Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, another non-linear examination of a brutal assault. But unlike Noé’s repellent, in-your-face-film (which makes audiences endure a rape in real time, without edits), Eye Of God provides the opportunity to get to know and like all of the characters, increasing the sense of dread surrounding their fates. And at the finale, just when we're steeling ourselves for the worst, Nelson pulls back, and instead of showing the rape and murder, cuts to a scene directly preceding it: a gentle, touching exchange between Plimpton and Stahl about God and forgiveness. This moment allows viewers to feel a young woman's violation more woundingly than anything in Irreversible. The movie’s title and the structure suggest that the events are being witnessed from outside time, through God’s eyes, and the finale carries within it an admonishment to “extreme” filmmakers like Noé: Sometimes, even God has to look away.