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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

An affecting story about mental illness and not-so-happy endings

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Evil Eye was announced last year with much fanfare and the most lavish marketing campaign in Netflix’s recent history.

Wes Anderson, known for his meticulously crafted characters, turned out his own creation, with the unheralded name of Lisa and Scott Z. Burns as director. The co-writer of The Bourne Ultimatum would previously have been best known for parts in films such as The Bourne Supremacy and most recently, Snowden.

Lisa and Scott Z. Burns, taking the director’s chair, would use their scripts and HBO Films experience to expand on an Anderson story that has been done in spots before, from Bottle Rocket to The Darjeeling Limited. But Evil Eye’s fidelity to the continuity between the earlier works was what made the project so original. Anderson’s arch, colorful New York set would turn out to be the key to the film’s charm. Lisa and Scott created three very different opening sequences that tell the story not of Lisa and Scott as lovers but of their mothers.

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Lisa’s Mother, played with sardonic irony by Kate Winslet in an uncanny physical resemblance to Anderson, is a sad mother, and never more so than when the camera observes her slowly sweating in the deli, a rage poisoning her entire personality. Everything Lisa does turns to her desire to become her mother. She fails a reading assignment at school, slips on banana peels in her lunch, silently rapes a student. By the end of the movie, she has been transformed into the actress playing Lisa, just enough to have herself at home with Lisa and Scott.

A walk home can go incredibly wrong for Lisa, and Anderson’s camera shows us her unraveling after her latest verbal attack. Her deranged mother, too, has gone mad, her hysteria reaching new levels of unbelievability as Lisa struggles to lose her grip on reality.

The tortured relationship between Lisa and her mother represents the movie’s central obsession, with all that this implies about family. But it is Anderson’s lens on the issue that makes the movie so compelling. It is hard to see any re-enactment of a familial relationship, where the behavior and behavior is so manipulated, accurately reflected in real life.

Anderson’s aesthetic is easy to get: It is one thing to see and hear the narrative in a very specific way, but you have to do the same with performance. Anderson clearly had much of his movie mapped out from the get-go, including the key chess moves and the exchange of pointed dialogue. His poetic language works best when its readers appear to be along for the ride. Watching the opening scene — a stream of consciousness that moves smoothly from horror to tenderness — I remained in the deep emotional pit, like a person in the throes of orgasm.

Lisa and Scott’s mother eventually leaves Lisa behind, and the movie then flashes forward to 17-year-old Lisa (Margot Robbie) deep in her relationship with her father, whom her mother had once despised. Lisa’s mother is a recluse who is now seen only by her aging daughter, who has provided some structure in a chaotic world.

Lisa, meanwhile, finds what she has always wanted — a marriage of her own. But what she sees in her husband, Andrew (Jesse Eisenberg), is a man who has completely disowned the only person who loves her, and who has also developed a physical fixation on her. She wonders if he is there for her or for himself.

The movie effectively tests how far we can push someone, and what lengths can be taken to provide a final resolution, and how far it will take us, as viewers, to decide whom we believe. Lisa and Andrew have their troubles, but ultimately, as Lisa becomes ever more desperate, so does the audience. Both Tregan and Andersbury were able to turn their performances into something else, something more than what their character meant to them.

Lisa and Andrew’s journey does ultimately end up with a happy ending, but this story is much bigger than a series of happy moments. Lisa learns that love and family are both fragile constructs.

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