It is hard to say what Oliver Cane’s feature debut Eyes and Prize is actually about. Its story is kept entirely within the walls of an anonymous flat. Four contestants are locked inside it. They are watched from all angles by CCTV cameras, and believe themselves to be in a reality show competition. It soon becomes apparent that they have been fooled, and are now imprisoned by a mysterious figure. We and their sinister overseer watch as they descend into panic and terror.
It would be easy to imagine the morality tale Cane could have wrung out of such a premise. Four people chasing fame and exposure, willing to sacrifice privacy and dignity in order to achieve it. This might have washed a few decades earlier, when angry filmmakers made self-important value judgements on things they didn’t understand. Times have changed.
We are all aware of reality shows, and no matter how lurid and cruel they might still be, they are generally highly monitored affairs with mental health experts on set. Television has evolved a system of ethics around an entertainment that was once considered scandalous. The characters in Eyes and Prize are aware of this. Cane is aware of this.
Tellingly it is the oldest contestant Ron (played with jocular confidence by Gerard McDermott) who has the most faith in the glaringly absent social contract of their captivity. Fresh faced Marcus (Jackson Bews) and Abbi (Alanna Flynn) are quicker to realise the gravity of their situation.
Eyes and Prize unfolds as more of a formally experimental horror film than a social commentary. The film alternately tells its story in extreme long takes and rapid, aggressive edits. This bold, odd stylistic approach clues us in to the film’s more abstract ambitions. It is here that things become unclear.
At its heart, this is a violently ugly, ghoulish film, about humanity reduced to fear and helplessness. It is the kind of dispiriting experience that makes you exclaim in dismay as it ramps up its cruelty. The cast perform the awkwardly forced familiarity of reality show contestants with canny precision, balancing self-deception with mounting paranoia. Brief hints as to their motivations and general humanity surface in these moments. But beyond this well-rehearsed ensemble dynamic, what is the film saying?
There are shades of the archly clinical camera work of Antonio Campos’ Afterschool. Cane, however, keeps us much closer to the characters. The camera is never surrogate for the viewer. We are never implicated in this cruel voyeurism.
Occasionally we dive into computer screens as the contestant’s social media is hacked by their captor. Is Cane suggesting that our lives have been rendered ephemeral and mutable thanks to our screentime? Or that depravity springs from our entertainment? Certainly the cruelty of reality TV allows them to plausibly deny their situation for longer than it should. Cane seems to hint at these ideas, but instead of going deeper he traps us within the confines of an ambient horror film in which feral, traumatised people travel towards certain doom.
Eyes and Prize frames its characters as desperate figures that have been dropped into a void in which they must reckon with themselves. And yet they have every reason to be terrified. Their only crime was believing the website that advertised the ‘show’. So the film does not seem to truly cast judgement on these poor people, but as it reaches its climax it becomes so punishing that it starts to feel like a Hostel film as hallucinated by Pasolini or Bunuel. It also never reveals the motives of its villain, a frustrating decision that reinforces a more abstract reading.
Oliver Cane and his admirably brave cast have made a film that tells its story in a totally unique way, full of left-field decisions that hit hard. It reveals itself to be a horror film of singular vision, and a truly dark one at that. There really aren’t many filmmakers out there that make the weird choices that Cane does. If he can focus himself on a clearer end-goal next time around I believe he will produce a truly great film.
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