Whether we’re Googling something, taking a snap to share with our followers, or video calling someone from far away, it’s safe to say that screens are now a huge part of our lives, each of us more reliant than ever on the technology at our fingertips. Trouble is that even though these devices make everything easier, many of us barely give a thought to what it means for our privacy, or lack thereof. It’s this thorny issue that writer-director Ramin Niami tackles in Eye Without a Face (2021), an intriguing thriller that questions our digital obsession, and asks if we can really trust that it’s not being exploited by the wrong people.
Henry (Dakota Shapiro) certainly prefers the glare of a screen to interacting with others in real life, holed up in his dingy, cluttered room almost 24/7, only ever emerging for the odd night-time stroll when he knows no-one will be around. Even his friend – and occasional renter – Eric (Luke Cook) can’t persuade him to come out, Henry painfully aware that his lack of social skills would make parties a living hell for him. No wonder he’s resigned himself to a life of seclusion. We’d almost feel sorry for Henry if he wasn’t spending all this isolated free time hacking into the webcams of unsuspecting local girls, spying on them and pretending they’re his best friends. Talk about maladjusted. Yet surprisingly, it’s this dubious central character that makes what follows in Eye that much more compelling, Henry’s webcam snooping leading him to accidentally witness what he thinks is a murder and a subsequent cover-up. Did he imagine it due to lack of sleep or his medication? Or has he stumbled across a terrifying secret that’s about to put him in danger?
Niami takes that Rear Window-esque premise and reworks it to fit our modern, digital age, delivering something that is satisfyingly creepy and dark. With the story barely ever leaving that one location (Henry’s house), there’s a horrible sense of claustrophobia throughout the whole film, the interiors cramped and uninviting, while Tara Violet Niami’s cinematography often uses tight shots to make it seem as if the walls are closing in on Henry. Charlie Clouser’s score delves further into that unease, becoming increasingly ominous as Henry starts to suspect that someone has discovered his webcam obsession. As the narrative (and Henry’s hidden life) unravels, those themes of voyeurism and the gaze also add another sinister layer to Niami’s film, the writer-director making us question exactly who is doing the watching, and why. A scene in which one of Henry’s victims (Ashley Elyse Rogers) uses her laptop for her camgirl job is particularly clever, the girl defiantly looking back at the screen as she uses the male gaze to her advantage – an act that has Henry shifting awkwardly in his seat and turning away. Seems he doesn’t like it when he’s not the one in control.
Dakota Shapiro keeps this side of the story interesting too, his wonderful performance adding pathos to the role and making us sympathise with Henry to a certain degree – quite a feat when your main character is basically a flat-out creep. His scenes opposite Luke Cook serve to humanise him even more, many of these moments between the two friends actually bringing some unexpected humour to proceedings. Indeed, whenever Shapiro and Cook are onscreen together Eye really works, the pair easily riffing off each other and clearly enjoying it too, particularly Cook who is hilarious as the brash Aussie wannabe actor trying to build an online personality for himself (something we suspect hasn’t worked out for him yet). He also gets the best dialogue of the script (“I’m not going to blackmail you, I’m an artist”) – one-liners that you can’t help but giggle at.
The switch from light to dark doesn’t always work though, the humour often so at odds with the more horrifying parts of the tale that it gives them less of an impact, preventing the tension from building up in any satisfying way. The result is a confusing tone and a film that never quite feels like a cohesive whole, some moments leaving us unsure as to what our reaction should be. Eye also loses its momentum in the latter half as Henry’s world begins to (inevitably) fall apart, the pace flagging even as Niami rushes to pull together the many threads of the plot – something that happens a little too easily. There’s still a couple of good, gripping scenes to keep our interest (such as a sequence where Eric unwisely decides to help Henry find out the truth), but it just doesn’t have enough of these to be fully engaging or truly unique, Niami resorting to a final reveal that’s been done plenty of times before.
Ideas around voyeurism, loneliness, connection and privacy lift Eye above the usual thriller fare. Yet in spite of a few intriguing moments, these themes are never completely explored, the plot meandering towards a conclusion that many will be able to see coming. It’s a dark, creepy thriller that has an impressive sense of claustrophobia to it, but a flawed film that you’re unlikely to revisit.
Eye Without a Face is available on UK digital platforms from 23rd August 2021.