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Hipster Holy Grail: Eye of the Stranger (1993)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

As usual, it's a little bit fun to chuckle at the overly-cool alpha male that David Heavener plays in Eye of the Stranger, and some of his clunky dialogue is amusing, too.  But there's simply way too much downtime in this movie for me to recommend it to anybody besides David Heavener fans.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (Junior Varsity Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Eye of the Stranger is the tale of corruption and misery in a small, middle America town called - ready for some irony? - Harmony.  It seems Harmony exists in total isolation despite being a trucker / railroad thoroughfare and is completely untouched by law enforcement beyond the local institutions.  This spells disaster for the multi-ethnic people who live there since the mayor, Howard Bains (Martin Landau), is a crooked mini-Trump who's trying to break into the real estate biz by forcing all local businesses into selling their property to him.

Now, I realize I haven't actually started to talk about the plot yet, but I have to take a sidebar here to ponder a bit more deeply about Bains's plot.  It just doesn't make sense.  Let's leave aside the logistics of how he achieves this level of corruption, which are ridiculous.  The simple question I have to ask is: how much value does Harmony actually have?  It's a tiny podunk town that's presented as economically depressed.  There's nothing you can really do with that.

I mean, dude, I live in fucking Baltimore.  I can buy a row of abandoned townhomes out of pocket right now if I really wanted to and I'd amass way more real estate in an afternoon than you will in your entire term.  But the reason I don't bother is because I can't answer one basic question - what the hell am I going to do with a block of condemned townhomes in Baltimore?

There may have been a throwaway line somewhere in here about how Bains is trying to get at the rich oil vein that's under Harmony.  But even if that's the case, why try to browbeat the chumps on Main Street?  Just buy one of the three dozen vacant lots that nobody else wants and set up your operation there, ya idiot.  You don't even have to demolish anything to tap into the well at that point - you'll save time and money and you don't have to kill anyone.

But, whatever.  The point is, Bains is corrupt as shit.  He has the sole law enforcement officer in town, a perennially drunk sheriff played by Joe Estevez, entirely under his thumb.  How?  Beats the hell out of me.  I think it had something to do with some shady dealings they had back in the day or something, but the upshot is that Estevez is terrified of Bains and his two goons, Rudy (Don Swayze) and Ballack (Thomas Duffy).

Rudy and Ballack are mindless thugs who carry out Bains's bidding, and when the film opens, we see them terrorizing a Chinese restaurant operated by Mr. Lee (Chao Li Chi) and his daughter, Chang (Wendy Pan).  Mr. Lee refuses to sign some ever-present, nebulously evil paperwork, so Rudy and Ballack beat the crap out of him and drag him into the street.  Chang runs down to a nearby Mexican restaurant where Bains is eating and asks for help - which implies that she's not aware of how crooked he is, in stark contrast to the rest of the movie where the people of Harmony take it for granted that life just sucks here - and is summarily dismissed.  By the time Chang returns to her father, Sheriff Estevez has drunkenly come out to try to arrest Rudy and Ballack.  They laugh in his face and take his gun, then decide they've had enough fun for the day and go home.

The movie awkwardly cuts to a graveyard where Chang is praying to her ancestors (or something?), and I assumed that Lee had died.  But he shows up again in almost the very next scene no worse for the wear, so it's just bad editing.  Anyway, Chang prays.

We also get brief introductions to some of the other locals who round out the citizens of Harmony.  There's Oli (Sydney Lassick), a jovial, but put-upon bootblack who basically acts as the town mascot.  Then there's Lori (Sally Kirkland) and Joe (John Pleshette), a married couple who own and operate the town bar/hotel.  And there's Doc (Stella Stevens), who I can only assume is a doctor, but you only ever see her getting drunk at Lori and Joe's bar.  There's also Jeb (Sy Richardson), an angry black guy who's basically just a prop.  His whole schtick is that the villains are racist to him, and then he's angry about it.

Got all that?  Good.  These people will occasionally be of various shades of importance in the background.

Now we cut to a moonlit street corner where a truck drops off a hitch-hiker.  For a little while, he is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, but the music and framing tells us he's an awesome figure of (probably) justice and (probably) badassery.  He is The Stranger, and yes, of course he's fucking played by David Heavener.

If you've ever seen a Heavener movie before, you already know what to expect from him.  He always has the same emotionless, trying-to-be-Eastwood, lightly-sarcastic, fuck-you-I'm-busy expression of wan boredom and/or cold hatred.  But deep down?  He's a nice guy.  You just have to get to know him.

Heavener's first stop is Mr. Lee's restaurant, where he stops to eat and play his harmonica.  Rudy and Ballack show up again and give him some crap, only now they appear to be deputies.  (This baffles me; were they always deputies and I just didn't notice?  And if so, why didn't Sheriff Estevez seem to acknowledge that fact earlier?  If not, then who the hell deputized them after their showdown at the beginning of the movie?)

At first, Heavener ignores them.  But when they start threatening Mr. Lee again and steal all the cash out of his register - which raises a whole new set of questions about what specific type of corruption Bains is trying to pull off - Heavener decides he's had enough.  He beats the shit out of them and returns the cash to Mr. Lee.  Then the next morning he pays Oli for a nice shoe-shine and goes for a sashay into town.

These two acts on their own are enough to give Heavener all the momentum and allure of heroism that the people of Harmony need for the rest of the movie.  From hereon out, the vast majority of the locals start talking about him (and to him) as though he's the second coming of Christ.  Now, sure, I understand that you'd be upbeat about a guy who pummeled the Town Asshole, but why would you hinge your future on the bet that he's going to be your savior?  Just seems like too much of a leap to me.

Not everybody is impressed with him, though.  Jeb is the only one who makes the reasonable case that Heavener is a total stranger and may not be totally trustworthy.  And Joe is inexplicably cranky and suspicious of him from the get-go.  This leads to a couple of terse semi-confrontations between them as Heavener starts to mingle with the people of Harmony and ingratiate himself.

Heavener doesn't say much, so you're never really sure what he's up to.  However, you do get to see him visit a mortician and get a quote on a coffin and funeral.  Turns out he needs about $10,000.  How you manage to stay in business in Harmony with those kinds of prices, I'll never know.  But just keep that little tidbit in the back of your head.

He also has sex with Lori somewhere around here.  BTW.

So, now it's time for Bains to come back and be a villain.  He sics his goons on Heavener and they ambush him, then drag him into jail.  Bains gives a bad guy speech about how he'd love to work with Heavener instead of against him, especially because the town is so taken by his charms and Bain could really use that right about now.  Heavener agrees to work for Bains as long as he gets paid $5,000.  Bains agrees, and Heavener is released.

Then Heavener kinda fucks around for awhile and attends a town meeting where the locals are trying to figure out what to do about things generally sucking.  Heavener tells them he thinks they should all leave, and when they say no, he says he can help them for a fee of $5,000.  Jeb thinks it's bullshit, but everyone else pays.

Heavener takes his $10,000 and gives it to the mortician, then tells him that the funeral arrangements are TBD.  That scene could be badass if it had punchy dialogue ("Where's the deceased?" / "I'm working on it."), but it's paced so clunkily that instead it feels like somebody is awkwardly trying to end a conversation with a coworker who won't shut up about the weird dream they had last night.

Alright, so, it seems like things are sorta, kinda, maybe heading for a climax, right?  Well... if you check the time on the movie, we're only about halfway through.  Let's waste another thirty minutes on incidents instead.

A bunch of trivial shit happens around here, including some arguments between Joe and Lori and some scenes where you see that Mr. Lee is running for mayor.  Most of these cutaways and tangents are meant to serve as a segue for exposition so we understand a little more of the town's back story.

It seems that once upon a time there was a lawyer here named Richard Grisson who was the only fixture of justice that Harmony had.  Grisson served as a counterweight to Bains's corruption and helped innocent civilians to stand up for their rights whenever things got shitty.  But then there was an argument one night and Bains shot Grisson, then convinced Joe to hide and bury his body.  In exchange for covering up the murder, Bains offered Joe a cut of the ambiguous money that he will somehow theoretically get when he buys up all the random properties on Main Street and enacts Phase Three of his stupid plan.

Heavener bares a marked resemblance to Grisson, and this is freaking people out quite a bit - Joe most of all, who is starting to become a paranoid wreck and thinks that Heavener may be an angry ghost coming after him for revenge.

Tensions continue to rise until one fateful afternoon when Jeb, who is being refused a drink at Joe's bar due to his blackness, is pulled aside by Bains.  Bains gives him a convoluted spiel about justice or what-the-fuck-ever and convinces him to harangue Heavener into leaving town.  Jeb tries to do exactly that, but because he decides to threaten Heavener with a shotgun and because he's black, Rudy and Ballack see fit to shoot the crap out of him.  Heavener checks on Jeb's body afterward and reveals that the shotgun was empty (which, if I can be a pedant, doesn't really excuse the part where he was waving a gun around, but whatever), and this encounter makes Heavener really, really sad.

So he starts to leave town.  Then Lori, who reveals she as having an affair with Grisson back before he was killed and is sleeping with Heavener now because he looks kinda the same, tells him not to leave.  So Heavener decides not to leave town.

Then Joe, who has been growing more and more paranoid, turns into a psychotic wreck.  He kills Doc in a total throwaway scene that makes very little sense even in context, and then he goes to dig up the anonymous grave where he buried Grisson in order to prove to himself that the dead are staying dead.  While all that's going on, Heavener gets into a fight with the other bad guys and kills Rudy and Ballack.

Joe succeeds in exhuming Grisson's grave, and it turns out that, yup, Grisson is definitely dead - his skeleton is still there.  Heavener shows up to confront him about it and we find out that Grisson didn't die after being shot by Bains - Joe buried him alive, and for that, Heavener plans to get justice.

Bains shows up and kills Joe, then tries to force Heavener to get into the coffin, and then Chang shows up out of nowhere and kills Bains.  And... uh, that's pretty much the end of that story, actually.

Yeah, so, it turns out that killing Bains was quite literally the easiest solution.  There are no repercussions to Chang whatsoever and it's not even like anybody's upset by her shooting the mayor to death.

The final scene is the funeral that Heavener paid for earlier.  It's not totally clear to me who the funeral is for, because the only attendees are Heavener, Oli, Lori, Chang, and Mr. Lee.  (Although, to be fair, those may also be the only citizens of Harmony that are still alive by this point.)  My initial guess is that the funeral is for Bains, but it seems like the mourners are legitimately upset, plus the funeral cost a ton of money - so maybe it's a proper burial for Grisson?  I'm so lost here.

Anyway, Heavener reveals that he was Grisson's brother the whole time and that's why he was here.  Chang asks Heavener if he'll stay in town to help keep the peace, and then he gives the "I'll always be here, Elliott" speech from E.T. and leaves, because that's what cowboys fucking do.

Oh, did I mention that Sheriff Estevez killed himself earlier?  That happened, too.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

So, let's give the movie credit where credit is due.  Most of the acting is actually pretty good.  Landau knows what he's been hired for and he delivers the appropriately level of slime, Swayze gives you the right level of ignorant hillbilly, and all the other bit players do exactly what was expected of them.  I even had fun with Joe Estevez, whose entire career is the definition of "slumming it."  (But in a good way.  I love ya, Joe.)

The only weak spots - and they're both pretty dang weak - are Heavener himself (no surprise) and Wendy Pan as Chang.  Pan is pretty, sure, but her line reads are all stilted and I never quite understood what her character was supposed to be.  There are times when she acts like an independent young woman, maybe 22 or 23, who's about to take her father's place as a business owner.  And then there are times when the movie treats her like she's 14 or 15, like the weird scene where she takes her top off and sorta-kinda-maybe tries to seduce Heavener, and he refuses and gives an "I'm too old for you" speech.

As for Heavener - well, yeah.  Of course he's terrible.  That's exactly why he's so fun to watch.  I mention this every time I review one of his movies.  He doesn't seem to be self aware of how ridiculous his archetype is, and the fact that he fully commits to it makes him bizarrely magnetic.  He's got the same detachment from reality as Tommy Wiseau, except that his performances are entirely inert.

There are certain moments from this movie that are legitimately fun.  For example, there's an insert shot where Sheriff Estevez opens a drawer in his desk, and you see two things inside: a revolver and a bottle of whiskey.  His hand hovers over them, unsure of which one to grab.  Little touches like that let you know that Heavener has some concept of how to make a movie and get across information visually.

And I absolutely love the premise.  It's the Wild West concept put in a modern setting: downtrodden town besieged by corrupt mayor is rescued by a passing gunslinger in the year 1993.  That sounds pretty good to me.  I'd love to see somebody try that in 2016 - can you imagine how that might play out in an era with cell phones and Twitter?  You could have a lot of fun setting up modern day analogues to western cliches.

I also dig the overall stupidity of the film.  There are plenty of times when it starts becoming an enjoyably bad movie.  Every ten minutes or so you find yourself thinking, "Hell, yeah!  I can drink along with this one!"

...but it never quite gets there.  It's overall too dull.

There are two big problems, I think.  The first is the pacing, which is a problem Heavener has had in his other films.  He spends too much time on establishing shots or little side conversations between characters.  What he's going for is flavor - he wants to pepper his movies with these little moments and cutaways that let you feel immersed in his universe.  But the editing just isn't there.  When you linger too long, you don't end up with playful banter - you end up with tedium.  There were so many times in this movie that I just wanted to shout, "Shut up and get on with it."

Which leads nicely into the second big problem: there's waaaaaaaaaay too much exposition.

Listen, you're making a modern western, right?  I got that pretty quickly.  I mean, you set it up clear as day.  (Your hero is even a man with no name doing a fourth-rate Eastwood rip-off, so, yeah, we get it.)  The first fifteen or twenty minutes do a decent job of using our understanding of tropes to set up the premise, and that's great.

But you know what westerns didn't have?  They didn't have overly complex plots and conspiracies.  If Eastwood went into Rambling Hills, AK and the town drunk said, "Our mayor's crooked as all get out," then Eastwood would just grimace and go, "I'ma get that son of a bitch."  And that's all you needed to know.  You didn't have to get into the tragic back story of the mayor's illegal gambling house and how it led to the death of the dentist's half-brother or any of that crap.  You would just set the scene and watch the sparks fly.

Eye of the Stranger over-complicates everything it sets out to do.  You know how to make this way better?  Make Sheriff Estevez part of the crime syndicate, give him another half a dozen crooked deputies, get rid of the murder/revenge subplot, get rid of the real estate subplot, and just make it a thing where the cops extort money out of the local businesses and there's nowhere the townspeople can go to get justice.  Then have Heavener be an actual stranger - not some dead local's brother - who tries to pass through and reluctantly has to get his hands dirty when the sheriff detains him.

The appeal of the gruff heart-of-gold anti-hero archetype that Heavener keeps trying to ape is that they always act in their own self-interest, but they are capable of empathy and can do the right thing if they're pushed the right way.  The "chaotic neutral, but leans good" trope is only fun because of the inspirational aspect that underlines it.  If your hero is an actual self-interested asshole with no heart of gold, then they're just another villain - and if it turns out they are a defender of justice the whole time who simply acts like a self-interested asshole, then they're a poser.  And really, isn't that a lame way for your movie to end?  ("Nah, I'm not actually a badass.  I just pretend to be one to get chicks.")

There's a decent little action movie that could have been made out of these elements.  Heavener just overthought it.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Prepare for a hefty total.  First up, the full obscurity bonus of fifty points for having less than 100 ratings on IMDb.  Next, it gets fifteen points for having two brothers of more famous actors.

And then it gets a whopping 30 points for being a full-on David Heavener production (written, directed, performed, produced, and music by).  I've said it before and I'll say it again: Heavener is the Hipster Holy Grail.  That doesn't mean he's good, mind you - just that he's the exact type of filmmaker whose movies are nectar for detached ironic bloggers who don't know where their sarcastic comments end and their genuine adulation begins.

That adds up to a massive 95 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  If only I could recommend this movie, I'd give it a perfect score.

Where You Can Watch

I haven't found it streaming anywhere, but it was released on DVD and you can buy a copy on the cheap.