'Eyes Wide Shut' At 20: Stanley Kubrick's Haunting Final Masterpiece Sees Human Nature All Too Clearly

Twenty years ago, on the eve of the new millennium, Stanley Kubrick invited moviegoers into a mansion where the rich and powerful donned Venetian masks and black hoods to engage in ritualistic orgies. It was the summer of 1999 and Kubrick had passed away months earlier, leaving behind the last entry in his filmography, Eyes Wide Shut, as a posthumous release. The film hit theaters on July 16 and like The Shining — which earned the auteur a laughably shortsighted Worst Director nomination at the first-ever Razzie Awards — it received mixed reviews early on.

Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the leading Hollywood power couple of the day, Eyes Wide Shut wasn't quite the erotic thriller that its marketing made it out to be. The sole sex scene involving one of the main characters was a fantasy sequence, glimpsed only in flashes of monochrome thought. Instead, audiences settled in for a 160-minute night odyssey that confronted the egocentrism in human nature through the lens of desire. In short: not your typical summer movie fare, unless maybe you were expecting a dark, twisted Christmas in July.

Forget the Illuminati; what really matters in Eyes Wide Shut is sins of the heart and how those affect couples caught up in a world that is beyond their understanding or control. In its own feel-bad, pre-Gone Girl way, this is a movie that might actually qualify as required viewing for anyone in a long-term relationship. The password is fidelio.

Last December, /Film contributor Britt Hayes argued that Eyes Wide Shut functions as an unlikely Christmas movie about a doctor with a myopic view of female sexuality who has his eyes opened one eventful night in New York. Gender dynamics are an important aspect of Eyes Wide Shut but on a broader level, this is a film about human nature—a recurring subject of interest for Kubrick throughout his career. Whether it be the ultraviolent droogs of A Clockwork Orange, the ax-wielding, family-resenting father in The Shining, or the "Born to Kill" soldiers of Full Metal Jacket, his films often focus on the savage side of human nature.

Eyes Wide Shut is more concerned with the self-centered side, as it pertains to human sexuality but also as it pertains to the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Cruise's character, a high-society doctor named Bill Hartford, is blind to his wife's capability for unfaithful thoughts even though he's out there flirting with beautiful women at his patient's party.

He's the egocentric star of his own story and his wife, Alice, played by Kidman, is just a supporting character in it. At home, he doesn't listen to her well enough to catch the babysitter's name, and at the party, he wanders off with a couple of models and then disappears upstairs at his patient's behest, leaving Alice drunk on the dance floor in the arms of a suave Hungarian.

To support the narrative of a marriage free of jealousy and temptation, Bill does fall back on antiquated notions of gender roles. When they're smoking pot the next night and Alice confronts him about his disappearance at the party, she starts dragging all these unspoken things out into the light, challenging him to consider that some of his female patients might fantasize about their handsome doctor while he's examining them naked. He's giving all the right answers at first but then he lands on the feeble defense that women "don't think like that."

"If you men only knew," she retorts.

The film's opening shot depicted Alice stripping off her dress; now she's stoned and stripping off the niceties of their relationship, seeking to get in touch with what's buried below the surface of their everyday lives. When she confesses a fantasy she once had about a young naval officer they crossed paths with, she does it in such a bombshell way that her unfulfilled mental cheating strikes as hard as an act of physical betrayal. It's the kind of duplicity a person might carry out in their minds even when their bodies are under full supervision, giving them the illusion of togetherness with their spouse.

For Bill, it becomes a vision of infidelity that he will replay in his head in the back of taxicabs as a house call sends him out into the night. Moving from one destabilizing encounter to another (first it's his patient's daughter professing her love for him, then it's a group of rowdy college boys threatening his masculinity), he eventually finds his way to a mansion called Somerton where he witnesses a masked orgy with sinister, piano-plinking overtones.

Kubrick's filmography has become a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Some of the more notable ones related to The Shining receive focus in the fascinating documentary Room 237. Included among these is the theory that Kubrick helped NASA fake the first moon landing in 1969, the year after his science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters (on the same day as Planet of the Apes, no less).

As out-there as they are, it's not as though these theories are entirely without basis in the text of his movies. In The Shining, for instance, Kubrick costumes young Danny Torrance in an Apollo 11 sweater at one point ... which might seem like nothing unless you're aware of how meticulous the director was about every onscreen detail.

Yet if 2001: A Space Odyssey is any indication, then Kubrick was cognizant of the effect of symbolism on the imagination and the ultimate power of ambiguity. The film's lack of dialogue gives it a cryptic quality and this is very much by design. In contrast to Arthur C. Clarke's novel, which explained things more, Kubrick was interested in unmooring the viewer with sights and sounds, sending them floating through space and rocketing through a Star Gate into baroque white bedrooms and other realms of irrational experience.

This all goes to say that Eyes Wide Shut perhaps deliberately leans into the conspiracy angle as it whisks Bill off to that mansion and lets us observe arcane disrobing rituals, soundtracked by the backwards chanting of priests.

There's all sorts of mirroring going on in Eyes Wide Shut. Throughout the movie, characters continually respond to one another's questions by repeating back the same words. Through this call-and-response method of circumlocution, they become momentary echoes of each other.

Eyes Wide Shut - Masks

The party at Somerton is a sort of a Satanic inverse of the one with heavenly gold lights that opened the movie. It's an underworld descent for Bill where we see people who are naked except for masks, as opposed to fully clothed people with visible faces—which nonetheless conceal secrets beneath their practiced civility.

When Bill disappeared upstairs at the first party, it was because his seemingly happily married patient, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), had run into some trouble with an overdosed hooker. Her name is Mandy, and as we'll find out later via a newspaper clipping, that's short for Amanda Curran.

At the second party, a masked woman pairs up with Bill, recognizing that he does not belong there and telling him he's "in great danger." When he gets caught and a circle of threatening partygoers closes around him, the woman reappears, staging a hammy last-minute intervention "to redeem him." This moment will allow Bill's self-mythologizing tendency to reach its full height soon after, as he comes to believe that he is at the center of a conspiracy involving the woman's death. He saved Mandy at the first party and this mystery woman (who is also Mandy, it turns out) saves him at the second party, or so he thinks.

Conspiracies can be compelling — even weirdly comforting — in the way they suggest there's a hidden order to the world. Bill feels betrayed by his wife and in his quest for carnal knowledge outside their marriage, he latches onto a scenario whereby an ex-beauty queen offered herself up as a melodramatic sacrifice so that he could escape a mansion populated by ghouls with long Boschian noses. It's an adult fairy tale, one that he clings to even as his view of the world around him continues to destabilize the next day.

It follows its own perverse logic, that world. The costume store owner who caught his daughter with two older men and made a citizen's arrest on them the night before is now cheerily pimping her out of them. Likewise, the attractive prostitute that Bill himself almost bedded turns out to be HIV-positive. In his encounters with her roommate and other people, the phrase, "To be perfectly honest," pops up a lot, yet Bill is still in denial, unable to honestly confront his place in the world as he struggles with a lifetime's worth of repressed fears and desires.

Maintaining his button-up image, clothing-wise, he flashes the roommate an all-American grin and flashes other people his doctorly credentials like he's talking to them on official police business. Meanwhile, his wife is at home, laughing at him in her nightmares as she dreams of being naked and copulating with strangers in a deserted city.

It's only in his final encounter with Ziegler that Bill realizes the "whole play-acted 'take me' sacrifice [he's] been jerking off with" is a fantasy. "I think you just might have the wrong idea about one or two things," Ziegler says, sounding like a parent whose child has been playing junior detective at the expense of the neighbors' privacy.

Which is more plausible and Kubrickian: the O.D. victim, or the hooker with the heart of gold who nobly sacrifices herself? If Ziegler's explanation of what happened to Mandy — who we know had a drug problem — can be taken at face value, then the truth is more mundane and Bill is not as special as he, in his male narcissism, desperately wants to believe he is.

At Somerton the morning after, a typewritten message in an envelope with his name on it warns Bill in an almost insecure manner that his inquiries "are completely useless." In a sense, the conspiracy or lack thereof doesn't really matter because it's one of the many larger forces that is beyond Bill's ken, just like the strange whims of all these other people he encounters in his peregrinations through the streets of New York.

As Alice says to Bill in the toy store at the end, "The important thing is, we're awake now." Bill had been sleepwalking, wandering through the night with eyes wide shut, but when he comes home and finds his missing party mask on the pillow next to Alice, he finally breaks down and experiences something like an awakening. Now he can see that the world doesn't revolve around him and he's able to go back to his wife and accept her as someone who is subject to the same me-first temptations as him. "I'll you everything," he sobs. No more secrets. No more lies.

In the background at the toy store, eagle-eyed viewers have spotted two men who appear to be present at the beginning of the movie, too. They look like the same men who walk in behind Bill and Alice at the first party and who are later seated with their wives at the foot of the staircase when Bill goes up to attend to Mandy. As Bill and Alice's daughter, Helena, wanders down the teddy bear aisle, away from her parents, these two men casually round the corner and a third man (he appears to be the waiter who served Alice a drink at the first party) crosses between Helena and her parents.

That's the last we see of Helena and some have theorized that the three men are actually kidnapping Helena, thereby ending the movie on a subtly black-hearted note. However, maybe the inclusion of these three figures from the first party is more of a subtle callback to Bill and Alice's Edenic state at the start of the film, before the forbidden fruit of dark sexual fantasies began to openly intrude on their marriage. Because of her age, Helena is even more blissfully ignorant than they were, yet she, too, will have to move from innocence to experience and her parents can only shepherd her so far.

It's worth noting that Kubrick's own daughter, Vivian, reportedly cut ties with him just before his death and has been estranged from her family ever since. It's possible that Helena's ambiguous fate offscreen is a reflection of Kubrick's own feelings of powerlessness as a parent as he watched his daughter move out to L.A. and become involved with Scientology, the same secretive religion as the two stars of his movie. He originally wanted her to compose the score for Eyes Wide Shut, as she did for Full Metal Jacket.

Ultimately, parents have no more control over their children's journey than husbands and wives do over that of their spouses. At the very end of Eyes Wide Shut, as the frame focuses on Alice and Bill, she suggests that they should be grateful that they've managed to survive through all of their adventures, "whether they were real or only a dream." They're both creatures with locked-away desires whose selfish nature will at times lead them to fantasize about pursuing their own gratification. The human heart is intrinsically wayward and untrue, but if they're aware of that, if they stay mindful of it, maybe they can show each other some grace.

It's a parting note that's almost hopeful, despite the web of uncertainties that remains spinning in the viewer's mind as the screen cuts to black. In the end, Kubrick's final film seems to say that the only way for couples to carry on truthfully in this world is to recognize human nature for what it is but then look past that, assuming the contradictory yet proper pose of "eyes wide shut."