Sally Field and friends are backpeddling. They're going on television talk shows and telling print reporters that "Eye for an Eye" is a "serious" film; it is not meant to endorse vigilante actions, a la "Death Wish."
But, as you might suspect, they are protesting too much.
Despite one powerhouse, emotionally wrenching sequence near the front of the film, "Eye for an Eye" largely plays like one of those wronged-woman-gets-revenge TV movies that dominate the prime-time schedule.
The scene in question has the film's protagonist, upscale suburbanite Karen McCann (Field), talking to her teenage daughter on a cell phone while she's stuck in downtown traffic. Then, when the daughter suddenly breaks off the conversation to answer the door, Karen - and the audience - becomes frantic and frustrated, as she listens to the sounds of her daughter being raped and beaten by an unknown assailant.
Yes, it's a powerful scene, and it certainly speaks to parental fears. But the way it's played also gives away the film's true agenda. Instead of allowing us to simply identify with Karen and share in her horror, the film repeatedly cuts back to the brutal rape and murder. By showing this in graphic, R-rated terms (albeit with quick, MTV-style edits), the scene's power is diluted and the film's exploitative tendencies are revealed early on.
It doesn't take police long to catch the killer, a low-life named Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland). And after his arrest, the investigating police officer (Joe Mantegna) feels sure that the overwhelming evidence will lead to a conviction. But instead, Karen watches helplessly as Doob is freed on a pre-trial legal technicality.
This tragedy and Karen's subsequent depression naturally put a strain on Karen's marriage, as she inadvertently begins pulling away from her husband (Ed Harris) and younger daughter. So, she begins attending meetings for parents of children killed by violence.
At those gatherings, Karen meets up with other parents who have also seen their children's killers let go, and after a time, she becomes involved in a plot to get justice, vigilante-style. Soon her depression is displaced by obsession.
The performers here are all quite good, with Field and Harris particularly effective in the quieter moments, as their characters attempt to salvage their relationship. And Sutherland is effectively sinister and sleazy.
But director John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy," "Marathon Man") and screenwriter Amanda Silver ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle") set aside any noble motives early on and settle for cheap thrills.
And, if there was still any lingering doubt about whether they intended to seriously explore society's frustration with the legal system, it is tossed aside for a denouement that is so utterly preposterous it would serve Morgan Fairchild as well as it does Sally Field.
"Eye for an Eye" is rated R for violence, rape, sex, profanity and vulgarity.