Private Justice

Sally Field ought to win an Oscar for her performance in John Schlesinger's new film, Eye for an Eye. She plays Karen McCann, a comfy L.A. burgher whose life explodes when her 17-year-old daughter is raped and murdered by a psychopathic delivery man. Her role, like the movie, flirts with melodrama from start to finish — Is this just a really big TV show? I wondered during the sappy beginning — but Field's tautness holds her broken character together. Karen McCann could easily melt into a puddle of weepy goo or billow up like a hot-air balloon full of agonized rage, but she does neither. Instead she remains a real woman, pelted by a shifting hailstorm of emotions, who scrambles with blind determination to right her capsized life.

The movie turns on a legal twist that's not quite plausible. A semen sample recovered from the dead girl proves that the killer is a rough-looking young man named Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland). But the prosecution has not provided the defense with a part of the sample to run its own DNA tests, as (apparently) required by law, and the judge dismisses the case — despite the prosecutor's disclosure that the defense declined an invitation to sit in on the state's tests.

This sequence of the movie seems rushed and perfunctory. Judges are increasingly reluctant to dismiss criminal charges on technical grounds in the face of powerful — in this case, conclusive — evidence. But Schlesinger isn't making a legal thriller; he's interested in visceral justice, and as soon as the principals leave the courthouse — Sutherland with a gleefully evil smirk on his goateed face — the pace accelerates.

Sutherland eerily resembles his father, Donald, but while the older man can show a gaunt benevolence, Kiefer's swaggering surliness suggests nothing but trouble. There's not much for him to do early in the picture except play the stock part — embittered blue-collar devil — written for him, but after the dismissal, when Karen starts tailing him, he retaliates with wolfish cunning.

In a claustrophobic scene in a toddlers sandbox, he approaches the McCanns' surviving daughter, 5-year-old Megan (Alexandra Kyle), and exchanges silly rhymes with her. After school, when Karen shows up for her daughter, Doob is waiting. “You stay out of my neighborhood and I'll stay out of yours,” he tells Karen. “I don't really like kiddie pussy, but I might try it.”

The screenplay (by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, adapted from Erika Holzer's novel) barely brushes the surface of the intellectual and moral problems it raises — the propriety of death as punishment for intentional murder, the privatization of everything in American life, including criminal justice — but it doesn't matter. The movie aims for the gut, not the head, and its emotional architecture rests squarely on the shoulders of Sally Field.

Her scenes with the police investigator, Sgt. Joe Denillo (Joe Mantegna), put to shame all those phony, “fuck”-choked confrontation scenes from such misbegotten crime monsters as Heat and Casino. When she tells Denillo, with perfectly controlled fury, that he's “useless,” she's taking his head off not with a shotgun blast of profanity but with the brutal precision of the right word. And her final shot is the best “fuck you” I've ever heard in a movie; for once, it's entirely the right phrase, like an unexpected kick in the nuts.

Most of Eye for an Eye is like that — elemental but judicious. There's enough violence and gore to announce the movie's dark seriousness, but Schlesinger knows that a glimpse or two is enough, and he doesn't dwell on the horrific. Field, too, always seems to be headed onto the rocks, but like an expert white-water rafter, she keeps her performance speeding exhilaratingly forward.

The film generates considerable sympathy for vigilante justice, and its climax is brilliantly staged, thrilling, and inevitable. Schlesinger wisely chooses to leave it at that — reserving, perhaps for another time and place, a more sophisticated exploration of the knotty social and ethical questions that linger beyond the final credits.

Eye for an Eye opens Fri, Jan. 12, at area theaters.

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