A grim and despairing tale of small-town tragedy and loss of faith, Tom Blake Nelson's "Eye of God" is a bleakly fascinating drama that will have a difficult time attracting audiences beyond the global fest circuit. Excellent lead performances and masterful storytelling are its main selling points. Even so, this uncompromising indie pic will be a tough sell for any distrib that rises to the challenge.

A grim and despairing tale of small-town tragedy and loss of faith, Tom Blake Nelson’s “Eye of God” is a bleakly fascinating drama that will have a difficult time attracting audiences beyond the global fest circuit. Excellent lead performances and masterful storytelling are its main selling points. Even so, this uncompromising indie pic will be a tough sell for any distrib that rises to the challenge.

Adapting his own stage play, Nelson employs a tricky but dramatically sound time-tripping structure to enhance a relatively simple plot. Pic begins with police discovering a young boy – covered in blood, traumatized into silence – wandering along an Oklahoma country road. The local sheriff (Hal Holbrook), a world-weary fellow who no longer believes in a benevolent God, questions the youth. This triggers a series of intermittent flashbacks that alternate with scenes of police investigation.

The flashbacks begin six months earlier, as Ainsley (Martha Plimpton), a shy waitress, has her first meeting with her pen pal, Jack (Kevin Anderson), who has just been released from prison. Only after their rushed courtship and hasty marriage does Ainsley learn that Jack served time for brutally beating a former girlfriend.

At first, Jack insists he is a changed man. And, indeed, he gives every indication of having had a religious conversion while in prison. As time goes by, however, the initially warm relationship becomes fraught with tension. After the closing of the restaurant where Ainsley works, Jack refuses to allow her to find another job. Then he demands that she never leave their house during the day while he works. Things go from bad to worse when Ainsley becomes pregnant. She frankly expresses her misgivings about having a child. Jack responds by grabbing her throat, and doesn’t release his grip until Ainsley promises not to have an abortion.

As “Eye of God” jumps back and forth in time, in a manner that recalls the early films of Nicolas Roeg, Tommy (Nick Stahl), the 15-year-old boy found on the country road, emerges as a key character. The mentally challenged youth has lived with his aunt (Maggie Moore) since the suicide of his single mother (Mary Kay Place in an extremely brief cameo). During one of his occasional latenight drives, he meets Ainsley at a service station. Briefly, the two lost souls connect. But then fate, in the form of a violently jealous Jack, intrudes.

Nelson wisely refrains from showing his audience the bloody mayhem that earlier scenes appear to foreshadow. (He provides only a brief glimpse of the terrible aftermath.) His discretion makes the final scene all the more wistfully sad.

Set against the vivid backdrop of an Oklahoma oil town in the terminal stages of economic devastation, “Eye of God” is deliberately paced but almost entirely free of nonessential material. Actually, pic may be too pared-down for its own good; it could have used one or two additional scenes of character development. As its stands, Holbrook’s sad-eyed sheriff, who provides some mood-setting narration, winds up seeming more like a Greek chorus than an active participant in the drama.

Anderson is exceptionally good in a role that, ironically, calls for him to behave much like the brutally manipulative husband he tried to protect Julia Roberts from in “Sleeping With the Enemy.” Anderson makes Jack so earnestly engaging in early scenes that it comes as a genuine shock when he eventually reveals his darker side.

As the doomed Ainsley, Plimpton is heartbreakingly effective. Her performance here ranks with her best screen work to date. She is thoroughly convincing as a fatally self-deluded young woman whose hunger for love brings her to grief. Stahl is convincing as the troubled Tom, though, like Holbrook, he is forced to flesh out a thinly written character. Among the relatively few supporting players, Richard Jenkins is a standout as Jack’s not-easily-

fooled parole officer.

David Van Tiegham contributes an understated but haunting musical score. Other tech credits are solid.

Eye of God

Production

A Minnow Pictures production in association with Cyclone Film. Produced by Michael Nelson, Wendy Ettinger. Co-producer, Dolly Hall. Directed, written by Tom Blake Nelson, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), Russell Lee Fine; editor, Kate Sanford; music, David Van Tiegham; production design, Patrick Geary; art direction, Richard Williams; costume design, Jill O'Hannesson; sound (Ultra Stereo), Mack Melson; assistant director, Harvey Jarvis; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 1997. Running time: 84 min.

With

Ainsley - Martha Plimpton
Jack - Kevin Anderson
Sheriff Sam Rogers - Hal Holbrook
Tom - Nick Stahl
Sprague - Richard Jenkins
Dorothy - Maggie Moore
Claire Spencer - Mary Kay Place
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