Having gained cult status over the years, enigmatic Scottish-born director Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye (1987) is everything you’d expect from the co-creator of 1970’s Performance – narratively sloppy, wilfully esoteric and loaded with the kind of haunting imagery which stays with you long after the credits. Like Manhunter, Michael Mann’s offering from the previous year, it defies the usual conventions of the serial killer genre, but it lacks the verve and precision of its similarly stylised predecessor. In a remote desert stretch of Arizona, a killer is targeting rich woman in their homes and turning the murder scenes into grisly minimalist art exhibitions.
Paul White (David Keith), a loving family man who produces bespoke, high-end stereo systems for the wealthy members of the community, unfortunately finds himself the chief suspect in the investigation. His supportive wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) is unaware of any foul play, but a returning figure from their past and the discovery by Joan of her husband’s infidelity sparks a much larger secret which may have a potentially devastating impact on the couple’s lives together. Cammell creates a strong sense of dislocation through his use of cutaways (revisiting the disturbing close-up of a fleshy eye), dialogue overlaps and the stunning, otherworldly-looking Arizona landscape, viewed mostly via his gliding, voyeur-like camerawork.
The ‘offing’ scenes are more impressionistic than the obvious gore-filled slasher tropes, and are all the more effective because of this. One deeply unnerving moments sees a victim being drowned as the killer uses a vanity mirror so she can observe her dying moments. It’s clear where the director’s interest lie in the medium, as his plot often seems like an afterthought. Secondary characters are introduced who offer zero contribution to the story and the loose flashback structure seems to meander for the most part, only paying off towards the very end of the film. Despite this, a fine cast (Keith successfully subverts his whitebread, all-American persona found in the likes of An Officer and a Gentleman) and a strong sense of place, coupled with Cammell’s abstract visual flourishes, means White of the Eye remains very watchable nevertheless.