I watched Eureka hoping to reconcile my feelings about Nicholas Roeg, whose work never fails equally to fascinate and frustrate me. I should have known better. Whatever else you might say about Roeg’s work, it is never easy to digest. In fact, his films’ difficulties suggest the most rewarding basis for discussing them. For it is not just a question of his incontestably original and striking technique, but also the problematic material on which he lavishes it. In the Roeg films which I’ve seen, the issue always becomes how much of my bemusement results from the demands of tough material, and how much from the kaleidoscopic way in which it is treated?
Eureka starts out as a character study of Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), a prospector who strikes it so rich that the rest of his life is a long slide toward desolation. Jack’s only real concern in middle-age is the future of his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) who has married Claude (Rutger Hauer), of whom he disapproves. As this domestic drama percolates, Jack’s business partner (Ed Lauter) is involved with a corrupt lawyer (Mickey Rourke) and his hood client (Joe Pesci) who, for unclear reasons, is determined to buy Jack’s island home.
The character study never lacks pretentious posturing (there’s some contrived mysticism complete with a crystal ball, for example, that makes little sense), but as long as the film remains centered on Jack’s emotional bankruptcy, Eureka is edgy, mercurial, worthy of the careful attention Roeg’s jagged, slice and dice approach requires. Hackman deserves a lot of the credit, conveying Jack’s violent impulsiveness and thoughtful despair. And while Roeg’s technical hi-jinks can feel gratuitous, they are executed at his usual high level of invention and contribute to the theme obliquely by mirroring Jack’s dissatisfaction with our dislocation.
When the gangster story takes over, however, Roeg’s flash merely adds to the confusion, not least because the conflict feels tacked on to Jack’s emotional crisis. The pyrotechnics are particularly distracting the night leading to his murder, when there is so much stylistic heavy-breathing it’s not even clear what is happening. Worse, with Jack out of the story, the movie shifts gears to become a tedious courtroom drama, as Claude is tried for Jack’s murder. Just when the action demands all the technique Roeg’s visual imagination can provide, he resorts to talking heads.
Eureka ends up a mystery that isn’t a mystery that turns into a mystery again, only to be resolved in a trite, unbelievable happy ending that isn’t really happy. The film pulls simultaneously in multiple directions only to stand still, sputtering and sparkling with Roeg’s signature visual brilliance, uncertain of its destination. There is much that is good, surprising, affecting. (Mickey Rourke deserves mention for the way he makes his lawyer’s cool exterior the slickest form of sleaze.) But I feel no closer to coming to terms with Roeg’s work and find it hard to imagine anyone spontaneously liking Eureka.