Previously at the Wellington Film Society: part one of the Nicolas Roeg season.
The real-life murder of Harry Oakes in 1943 and ensuing trial of his son-in-law in the Bahamas was big enough news that it reportedly knocked World War II off the front page in England. The story of a hugely successful gold mine operator (Jack McCann, played by Gene Hackman), who was killed in grisly circumstances, could have made for a standard exercise in genre. Instead, British director Nicolas Roeg turns it into something more metaphysical and resonant. Of course, Roeg has a history in taking genre and using it to explore feelings and emotions via his trademark jagged editing—grief in Don’t Look Now, alienation (literally and figuratively) in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and loss in Walkabout are notable examples of his impressive skill. But there’s also something quite, dare I say it, fun about Eureka, that makes his over-the-top style particularly effective in this instance.
In Eureka, Roeg captures the sublime and the anti-climactic comedown post-perfection. The debts to films such as Citizen Kane are blatant—at its heart, the tale has a Rosebud resonance of ‘perfection’ once attained, and subsequently lost through material ‘success’. Roeg’s montage editing, operating at its free and physical best, allows for such an obvious allusion to be made at the moment of McCann’s gold discovery (the orgasm/‘death’ of Frieda, played by Helen Kallianiotes; the echoing off the mountains). Time is rarely linear in his films, and the stream-of-consciousness approach is less interested in narrative plausibility than in capturing mood, linking the past, and thematic connections to the ‘present’.
Roeg was also a wanderer. His films have been shot all over the world, and he uses the contrasts in landscape between the Alaskan wilderness and the Caribbean island paradise to great effect; in particular, you can almost touch the sweat, the heat, the cold, and you understand how the characters can’t ever seem to fit into their environments. Furthermore—and this is an underrated political dimension to Roeg’s filmmaking—his characters in their solipsistic quests ignore the displaced around them, and in the process, fight the wrong battles. The subsequent triumph of unashamed capitalism and cronyism is perhaps the bitterest legacy depicted in the film.
The film is not without its flaws. The editing is so exciting and dynamic—at least in the lead-up to McCann’s demise—that one wonders if it could have ended on those terms. But, as suggested to me after the screening by fellow Lumière contributor Doug Dillaman, the extended courtroom scene allows for Roeg’s thematic ideas to become much richer, affording a similar moment of the sublime to the Van Horns (Rutger Hauer and Theresa Russell). It does, however, feel anti-climactic in terms of pure narrative momentum. The emphasis on Russell’s body also felt gratuitous and slightly obligatory, as if Roeg had to live up to his famous depictions of nudity in Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. And perhaps the (purposeful, as in all of his films) use of ciphers as characters may have stymied the overall impact of the film, and no doubt explains its lukewarm reaction upon initial release. But in terms of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking—UA/M-G-M admittedly tried to bury it—Eureka has a rare and exciting energy, through which Roeg transforms a tabloid bonanza into a caustic take on success.