Karen McCann (Sally Field) has her life thrown into disarray when her 17 year-old daughter is raped and murdered. Delivery man Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland) is arrested for the crime, but an evidence mishap sees all charges dismissed, and Doob allowed to walk free. Unable to cope with Doob’s newfound freedom, Karen takes matters into her own hands.
Eye for an Eye (1996) is a nasty little concoction, directed by John Schlesinger from a script by Erika Holzer, Amanda Silver, and Rick Jaffa. In all honesty I cannot imagine any one of them having been proud to have it listed in their filmography. Crass, manipulative, and deeply insincere, it is a marvel that it received a theatrical release at all. It is entirely impossible to recommend.
There is the germ of a decent and provocative idea underpinning the film. The idea of a grieving parent undertaking vigilantism when the justice system lets them down has merit, and in a better film it might really lead its audience to consider the morality and personal cost of such an action. In practice it lets the audience off the hook entirely. There is no doubt from the outset that Doob is guilty, nor is there any doubt that incompetence in the judicial process allows him to be acquitted. The lead police detective (Joe Mantegna) is portrayed as ineffective and stymied by due process. As the film progresses, Doob is presented as diabolically evil: he commits a second rape and murder, he threatens to rape Karen’s other daughter (aged seven), and it is clear that he will never stop his crimes unless someone actively kills him. The film refuses to allow any ambivalence. Doob is evil, the police are incapable of acting, and the only adequate solution is for Karen to entrap and murder him in revenge. What could have been a difficult and thorny conversation on vigilantism becomes an enthused and aggressive argument in favour of it.
Even worse, the film’s two rape sequences are presented with a disturbing level of grotesquerie that borders on the fetishistic. They have a leering, sensationalistic quality with no real justification to exist. Frankly it feels more than a little sadistic.
To her credit Sally Field does her best, and goes a long way to at least making Karen a relatable character. The same cannot be said of Ed Harris, here playing a deeply unsympathetic husband without any decent writing to support him. Keifer Sutherland is essentially playing a cartoon character, with no subtlety or depth. He exists purely to be hated by the audience. Supporting performances by Philip Baker Hall and Keith David – as well as Mantegna – are solid, but of what are they in aid?
Every creative choice offers a better, more interesting picture. What if it was unclear if Doob murdered Karen’s daughter at all? What if he protested his innocence, or if the police took the time to protect him from Karen’s stalking? What does vigilantism do to a person? How does Karen cope with being a murderer? There are so many possibilities, and yet Schlesinger and the writers have selected the laziest, most cynical take on the material possible. Eye for an Eye is not simply disappointing – it is actively difficult to enjoy.