Film and TV

Oklahoma Gothic

The religious and philosophical underpinnings of Tim Blake Nelson's Eye of God get pretty weighty and mighty dense in places--especially for an 84-minute movie set in the decaying little town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma. Unlike most of the 4,042 residents, Nelson is a graduate of Brown in classical studies and an award-winning New York playwright, and it sometimes seems that his characters' tragic and tangled quests for meaning have been cooked up in an ivory tower rather than down in the red dirt of real life.

Among his many credentials (he's also been a fellow at the Sundance Institute), Nelson was born and raised in Tulsa, and his decision to set this structurally challenging, theologically complex drama about murder, faith and God in a dusty outpost like Kingfisher eventually fulfills a bizarre and beautiful logic. By the end, we realize it could unfold almost nowhere else.

Here's a glimpse of the surface:
A needy, none-too-sophisticated young woman named Ainsley Dupree (Martha Plimpton) finally meets her longtime pen pal, Jack Stillings (Kevin Anderson), who's just been paroled after three years in the penitentiary, where he was born again. Immediately drawn to each other, Ainsley and Jack hastily marry (the bare-bones ceremony looks suitably bleak) and initially seem happy. But there are crucial gulfs neither of them has foreseen.

Meanwhile, a thoughtful sheriff (stately Hal Holbrook), who serves as the film's narrator--and conscience--finds himself interrogating a troubled fourteen-year-old, Tom (Nick Stahl), who's been found on the shore of a placid lake, struck dumb, traumatized and covered with blood.

In time, the pieces of Nelson's dramatic jigsaw puzzle fit together, but not before we take a dark journey of discovery that leaps back and forth through time, visits the warring camps of Christian fundamentalism and disbelief and considers the pitfalls of both blind faith and spiritual vacuity. Like a Greek chorus, the haunted sheriff oversees the spectacle, trying to understand. His results are mixed. In the course of telling us why he became a cop, he muses: "There is no way around the question of God." Uneasy, he also knows there's no answer.

Not in Kingfisher, anyway. Amid rusting oil pumps, sad cafes and long-unpainted storefronts, Nelson reveals a moral microcosm in which the eternal questions of humankind prevail. Here an ex-con who may not be what he says he is finds himself burdened with difficult choices and the agony of repaying a creator who he believes has set him free. An unhappy parole officer (Richard Jenkins) bitterly observes, "Christ died for my sins? I sure ain't seen no benefit from it." A boy silently wonders why fate (or God) has chosen to torment him. Meanwhile, wide-eyed Ainsley is caught between one form of imprisonment and the next. It's a town full of churches--"You can pick and choose, unless you're a Mormon or a Jew," one citizen points out--but a house in disorder.

As imagined by a young playwright/filmmaker chock-full of knowledge, Kingfisher is the world itself--imperfect, violent, beset by existential riddles.

That's a tall order to lay on a place so slight, even if you're a thirtysomething scholar who knows all about Roman history, Greek myth and biblical detail and who doesn't mind sprinkling a little of each onto the Oklahoma prairie. To his credit, though, Nelson usually manages to keep the feet of this disturbing and highly intelligent film (adapted from his play) on the ground.

We never stop caring about the murder mystery at the center, even as we're led off on all kinds of epistemological side trips. The small-town gloom and dark secrets of the literal Kingfisher are never quite inundated by the force of Nelson's big ideas. Thanks to heartfelt, subtle acting by the entire cast, the human beings we meet here remain real flesh and blood (plain Sooners all) while bearing their creator's double- and triple-tiered messages.

In effect, we encounter a kind of miracle--a look at the human condition that seems at once as transcendent as a voice from heaven and as plain-spoken as a weary waitress asking how you want your eggs cooked.--Gallo

Eye of God.
Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson. With Martha Plimpton, Kevin Anderson, Nick Stahl and Hal Holbrook.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo