The last time we were graced with a script penned by but not directed by Joss Whedon was in 2012. That film was Cabin In The Woods, and it arrived mere weeks before The Avengers, meaning that it mostly got lost in the film conversation that year. A shame, considering that Cabin was the better film. It was clever (but not too clever), occasionally frightening, more insightful than it could ever be given credit for, and funny in the cute, warmhearted way that Whedon stuff is funny.
Technically, the script for Cabin In The Woods was only co-written by Joss; he shares the writing credit with Drew Goddard, the film’s director. Drew is no stranger to the Whedonverse. He’s written several episodes of Buffy and Angel, and he also wrote the “Wolves At The Gate” arc of the Buffy comic series published by Dark Horse. And Drew’s not the only one with Whedon lineage in Cabin. Fran Kranz of Dollhouse plays one of the film’s main characters, and Amy Acker of Angel plays a small but crucial role as a technician for the unnamed Facility in the film that sets all of kinds of horrific things into motion.
I say this because, having recently watched In Your Eyes, this is what I’ve found myself focusing on: small, inconsequential minutae. What does it matter if In Your Eyes doesn’t have any Whedon favorites in it? Well, it doesn’t. But In Your Eyes is so curiously vacant, so flat, and so – I’m gonna say “studiously” – unWhedon, I’m having trouble reconciling it with its creator. So I’m getting hung up on little things, because the big things just bum me out.
In case you’re not aware: In Your Eyes is a film written by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill that recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and was made available immediately afterwards on Vimeo’s VOD platform for the low, low price of $5 (with Live At The Beacon Theater, Louis CK correctly figured that $5 is the magic “eh, why not?” figure for impulse videotainment – a positive trend that I hope continues so long as it’s sustainable for content creators). Whedon had apparently been tinkering with this story since the early 90’s, and on paper, In Your Eyes does seem to merit a continued investment in for that amount of time. The idea is that there’s these two people who live completely different lives on the opposite ends of the country who have a kind of psychic connnection with one another. They can physically see through each other’s eyes, should they choose to (hence the title), and they can occasionally experience sensations felt by the other person.
That’s kind of neat, I think. But a high concept can sink alarmingly fast if you don’t structure it in just the right way, and In Your Eyes botches every opportunity for forward momentum – and it does so right out of the gate.
At the beginning of the movie, we see our two main characters, Rebecca and Dylan, as kids; Rebecca is about to go sledding, and Dylan is goofing off with his buddies at school. Rebecca slides down a hill on her sled, smashes into a tree, and at the same time, Dylan faceplants right onto the classroom floor. The scene is comical, and for all the wrong reasons; as Rebecca picks up speed, Dylan’s face tightens, his eyes widen, and he begins to shake. He clutches his desk tightly, and the desk shakes, a big violent shake like there’s an earthquake going on. I mean, this approach *could* work, but the juxtaposition of these two events is far too on-the-nose. There’s no nuance, no mystery here. I took this personally, even though I know I shouldn’t, because it signals a lack of trust on the director’s part, that Brin Hill does not think that I am going to get what’s going on here if it’s not spelled out for me veeeeerry slooooooowly in ALLLLLLL CAPSSSSSSS.
So okay. The opening’s not great. It’s a little stilted, and a bit of a misfire, tone-wise. But hey, some films don’t have a great opening, but they recover. Eventually. In Your Eyes, though, is not one of these films, and depressingly, the opening scene plants the seeds for *all* of the film’s problems – and for the next 100 minutes, we get to watch them sprout into weeds.
Let’s start with how it all looks: at the film’s onset, Rebecca’s scenes all have a cold blue hue to them, while Dylan’s scenes are all warm and orange. Cinematically speaking, this is just about the most basic thing you can do to establish visual contrast (with the possible exception of using color in the present and black and white in the past) – and while this visually may have worked okay for an opening scene, In Your Eyes does not deviate from this palette at all. This is how the film will look. Rebecca scenes = blue. Dylan scenes = orange. And that’s it. And my god, it gets dull *fast*. Sometimes, this can work – Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic has a similar visual approach – but it’s the kind of thing that sticks out if you’re not engrossed in what’s happening. And in the interest of making sure that we’re *not* all that engrossed in what’s happening, the film perplexing flashforwards like ten years into the future right after the opening scene is done.
That might not sound like a big deal, but the hurdle of those ten years or so (I think – truthfully, it’s probably more) is something I wrestled with when watching the film for at least 30 minutes. It kept my focus outside, and I spent a lot of that first half hour trying to burrow back in. So, these two can feel what the other is feeling, sometimes to the point of physical injury – does that mean they can feel *everything* that other person is feeling, or only certain things? Is there like a threshold, where if something is intense enough, they can feel it, but it’s not, then they can’t? Or is it something they need to focus on? Or are their connections just random, and there is no rhyme or reason to what happens to them? Regardless of whether or not they’re random, how in the hell didn’t this get to be a serious problem for the two of them years ago? It’s kind of a miracle that they’re both still alive, and that they haven’t been seriously injured as a result of their connection. Wait, if one of them dies, would the *other* one die? If not, would they know what happens after death, then? Would they able to experience an afterlife? Would they experience dying? Would they remember it? Would it traumatize them? I mean, this has been happening since they were kids – you’d think that they would’ve figured out what was going on much sooner then their obligatory meet cute in their late twenties. Kids are younger and more impressionable, after all.
Much like the Who’s Who of the Whedonverse, this is the kind of stuff that’s ultimately meaningless, and that should remain in the periphery. Any time you start digging too deeply into the machinations of a film, it means the film’s not working quite right (there are exceptions – see: Primer). Personally, I don’t even know why we had that opening scene with them as kids. It causes too many problems, and it doesn’t really add anything to the story. If we kicked things off with them as adults, and suddenly, they start seeing through someone else’s eyes, that could be kind of magical; it’d be easier to go along with, certainly. This film don’t need no kids.
I said earlier that Rebecca and Dylan meet cute, and they do – and the film could’ve righted itself if it made clear that yes, these people had a sensory connection for years, but they weren’t able to talk to one another until just now. Like, whoa. That works. But the film goes out of its way to make it seem as though these two people just never thought to *try* and talk to one another until just now. Which is preposterous. Again, they don’t know that what’s happening to them is that they’re actually seeing and experiencing things that are presently happening to another person in the flesh who’s two thousand miles away. But as kids, it stands to reason that they might want to try and talk to this second vision thing that they’ve got. Kids, even older kids, aren’t shy about trying to squash realism with fantasy. But no…Dylan hears Rebecca basically be accident, and in his twenties/maybe thirties. Hard to believe that didn’t happen earlier.
From here, the movie gradually settles into its existence as a by-the-numbers romance – with a twist! While the script is definitely not Whedon’s finest hour, most of the blame for the film’s general vacuity lies squarely on the shoulders of director Brin Hill. The acting is all very wooden, the design and the look of the film is bland and safe, the pacing is weak, and the music is WAY too big and emotional. While watching In Your Eyes, I found myself drifting back, more than once, to Spike Jonze’s Her, a film that could’ve been every bit as ludicrous as this if Jonze hadn’t hit all of the right notes. There’s a sex scene in Her wherein Theodore (a human) and Samantha (an operating system) get it on – and it works; In Your Eyes has a sex scene where Rebecca and Dylan writhe on their beds, sensually rubbing themselves so that they can feel the sensation of each other’s bodies, and it’s absurd. I laughed during it. More than once. It’s on par with the sex scenes from The Room.
In Your Eyes works best when it’s at its simplest. Coincidentally, that’s also when it most feels like something penned by Whedon. There’s a big patch of the movie where we just see these two characters connect and talk to each other, as though they were sitting in the same room. It’s playful and fun, and it feels real. When the real world encroaches on this, the results can be funny (Rebecca pretending to be talking on the phone when here husband interrupts her conversation with Dylan), or tiresome (Dylan smacking himself in the face repeatedly to get Rebecca to leave him be on his doomed date).
A plot slowly starts to rise out of all of this. Dylan, who was previously imprisoned for burglary (he’s an expert lockpicker) gets unwittingly pulled back to the crime life for One Last Job. Well, not so much “pulled in” as “expected to take part in” since it was his idea. But that was before. He doesn’t want to do it now, since he’s a Changed Man – and his two buddies are just about the least menacing people ever to force him into it. But Changed Man or no, when Rebecca is institutionalized by her villainous husband, Dylan’s all game to steal two cars and get into a chase to come to her aid.
And yes, I know. I know. They’re in love. You can do some crazy things when you’re in love. And you don’t always think things through. And yes, Rebecca hasn’t talked to Dylan in a long time, and he’s scared of losing her, and so off he goes. As a climax, that works well. Problem is, it isn’t earned. What gets these two to that point is that they:
A) Are constantly talking to one another in earshot and/or plain sight of others, so it looks like they’re talking to themselves, and
B) They don’t give each other any space
That last point sounds a bite trite, but think about it: if they’re going to be together, forever and always (which they basically are already, just not physically), they’re going to need to be careful about where and when to mindlink with one another. If Rebecca wants to drive 300 miles to visit her Great Aunt Mildred in Delaware, that’s probably not the best time for Dylan to go golfing; one slip into the other person’s consciousness, and you could have a car wreck or several broken bones. Restraint is needed. To be together, they’ll need to know – and know intuitively – when to be Out There and when to be In Here. To have them spend a movie not learning that, only to wind up in the throes of a very hot blooded and syrupy waltz to a finish line wherein they’ll need to know that if they want to have any chance of building a life together (and also not being arrested), is extraordinarily disingenuous. We don’t ever see these people grow into the right person for one another, although the film tries to convince us mightily that we have. We only really see them learn about one another. And considering this bond has existed between them since kids, that’s just not enough.
In Your Eyes has sloshed around my mind with little rest since I saw it, and I keep hoping in its tumbling motion it’ll show me some key to itself that had slipped me, but that hasn’t happened yet. Everything is as it was.
I thought about the film on the train ride into work this morning, and the weather was grey and rainy, like what you’d get if you’d mash the visuals of Dylan and Rebecca’s environs together, and this song came on my iPod – and it gave me what I wanted from the film, but didn’t get. And I can’t help but wonder…