I’d been keeping tabs on the progress of In Your Eyes (Brin Hill, 2014) for a while – because it was written by Joss Whedon. A couple of weeks ago I saw that it would be premiering at Tribeca, but even at that point I could still see no news of a UK release. Given how tricky it was for someone living in a city without an independent cinema to get to see Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012), I wasn’t optimistic about getting to see In Your Eyes any time soon. So I was delighted when a friend texted me this lunchtime with the news that the film is available to stream now on Vimeo, for just $5, via http://inyoureyesmovie.com/. I have now watched it, and it may well be my favourite film that Whedon has written and/or directed (not including Toy Story, for which Whedon gets first screenwriting credit but which clearly remains John Lasseter’s film first and foremost).
The first part of the review below is spoiler-free (aside from discussing the concept that drives the film, which is introduced at a very early stage), then there is a clearly-signalled division before I proceed to discuss the film as a whole, including its ending.
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In Your Eyes has been described in some places as science fiction, but is probably better-described as a high concept romantic drama, with a comedic streak. It tells the story of two white Americans in their early thirties – a man and a woman, separated by two time zones – who share a mental connection. The particular nature of that connection is clarified in an early scene of the film, where the two communicate consciously and sustainedly for the first time. The realm of intense bodily sensation is something the pair share involuntarily: the film begins with scenes from their childhood, and when Rebecca flies off her sleigh and into a tree, we see Dylan, sitting in the classroom, fall from his desk to the floor, unconscious. When Dylan is hit by a pool cue in a bar, Rebecca feels it. Dylan and Rebecca can also see and hear what the other is seeing and hearing, something which they have at least some measure of control over. It is established early that neither of the pair can read the other’s thoughts or hear her or his inner monologue. Thus, we do not get echoey ‘voice of my brain’ effects over characters with closed mouths, which would be less dramatically effective – and much harder to sustain – than what we do get, which is more like a series of telephone calls – with sensory enhancements! – between two people getting to know one another.
As one might expect, Whedon’s script develops the concept with assurance, mining rather than milking first its comedic and then its dramatic potential. And it is Whedon the scenarist rather than Whedon the writer of dialogue who is most prominently on display here. A friend of mine once observed that more often than not, a Whedon character will talk like Whedon, but this is not the case here, and the film is probably the better for it. Dylan and Rebecca’s articulateness and self-consciousness are heightened to the extent that most screen fiction characters’ are, without that little extra again that Whedon usually employs. This also makes the direction of Brin Hill (of whose work I have seen nothing else) a good fit. Whedon will often use very precise beats and gestures in a scene, creating dramatic and emotional punctuation that for me falls just on the right side of being mannered. The heart of In Your Eyes – which is not the heart of most movies – is two characters talking to one another, but in separate locations, and without being able, except when they are near mirrors (as they are in a couple of electrifying scenes), to see one another. Therefore, what the predominant dramatic situation demands is a lot of smiling, openness, warmth, and genuine and spontaneous responsiveness to what the other is saying, things that are duly delivered by the two (it should be added, very well-cast) leads under Hill’s direction.
Spoilers to follow.
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As already stated, In Your Eyes is a film that not only has a concept, but knows what to do with it. As a dramatic and emotional experience, the film is paced very well, and modulates its tone expertly too. During the film’s climax, both characters have to go on the run to escape from imprisonment and to reach one another. Dylan, a former prisoner on parole, has to run from his very thorough parole officer, and Rebecca has to escape from the mental facility her husband has committed her to. On Dylan’s side, I had no complaints. On Rebecca’s side, though, the character of Rebecca’s husband is the film’s weakness – not fatal, but significant. It seems that the film wishes to partake of the ‘persecuted wife’ cycle of studio Hollywood, which included masterpieces such as Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) and Whirlpool (Preminger, 1949), but feels unable to entirely commit to this. Rebecca’s behaviour – violent and seemingly unprompted physical sensations, seeing and talking to absent things – would be enough to cause any husband to worry. For a lot of the movie, Phillip (Rebecca’s husband) seems unsympathetic rather than malevolent; thinking about the other generic elements at work, he seems to be operating as the unsuitable partner of a romantic comedy, the kind of figure who stifles due to their lack of imagination rather than their patriarchal authority. Things get a little more sinister when we learn that Phillip, who manages the town hospital, has covertly called upon the help of a colleague specialising in abnormal psychology. However, this is one of the very rare scenes of unmediated access to Phillip we get. The one scene that I would count as a clear-cut dramatic failure is the one where malicious town gossip Diane goes to Phillip, presumably to tell him that Rebecca is having an affair. I say ‘presumably’ because the scene is filmed as a flaky montage of gestures without sound. Thus, we are denied precise information about what Phillip is told and how he reacts. The close-up of his wedding ring does not do the necessary work. The key point, for me, is that the film appears to want to simplify the picture at this point, and make it seem as though Phillip is stealing Rebecca’s liberty because he suspects her of adultery. But such a motive comes too late: if this is the first time Phillip is thinking this, how do we match this part of the story up with his monitoring of his wife before this point. Would he have committed her to secure mental care without being told of her supposed adultery? If he has a history of sexual jealousy specifically in addition to protectiveness, we ought to have found out about it earlier. In short, in order for Phillip to have the function in the plot that he is ultimately given, he ought to be more of a character.
Another and more positive way of putting this would be to say that nothing in the film is quite as good as the leads and their interaction (though Dylan’s attempts to date Donna, with the help of Rebecca, sometimes comes close). It is unusual for one to feel moved to praise a film for having the bravery to deliver a happy ending, but that was my response to the end of In My Eyes. Knowing of Whedon’s tendency to kill beloved characters and deliver crushing plot developments, I envisaged an ending where Rebecca, after becoming a mental patient, is subjected to a procedure which destroys her connection with Dylan. He tries to save her, but arrives just too late, and she does not recognise him. Instead, we end with the couple united physically as well as mentally. Against the odds, but nevertheless plausibly, both have escaped their pursuers, and come together, wonderfully, on the empty boxcar of a freight train. Seeing the world with the same eyes and being able to hear one another at a distance may cease to provide the same sort of thrill now that the couple are in the same place, but, as the film makes sure to remind us, the sensual empathy, which becomes a sensuous circuit, remains. Luckily, the film has also taken the care to present us with a relationship based on love and empathy, and on looking out at the world together, rather than mindreading, so there is a basis for us to expect as well as hope that Rebecca and Dylan’s future together will be happier than their pasts.