21 Eyes is an independent film experiment of the do-or-die nature. Had the film gone awry, it would just be classified as a gimmick-gone-wrong. Since it succeeds for the most part, it is an innovative take on the sparsely populated mystery genre. When you sit back and think about all that had to go right for this project to succeed, you really gain an appreciation for the talent involved.
The story, at least at first glance, appears to be a garden variety mystery yarn. Wealthy gem dealer Seth Collison (Serrano) is in possession of the priceless Sophia diamond. In what appears to be an inside job, a gang of thugs infiltrate Collison’s plush mansion to steal the stone. A gunfight breaks out, leaving all of the gunmen, as well as several of Collison’s employees, dead. The police classifies the case as “open and shut” since the gunmen are dead and the stone is back in its safe, but detectives Blu (voiced by Stevens) and Scotty (voiced by Buscemi) begin to uncover an alternate scenario as they begin to explore the footage taken from each of Collison’s twenty-one surveillance cameras. Who was the person on the inside?
The entire film is told from a first person perspective as we hear, but never see, detectives Blu and Scotty assessing each tape and see exactly what they see. The screen even goes to blue as the men switch tapes. Simply viewing surveillance footage for ninety minutes must have been a tough sell, but screenwriters Lee Bonner and Sean Paul Murphy get the viewer immersed from the outset. The story is very intriguing and the quips and observations by Blu and Scotty always keep things fresh. There is actually an abundant amount of humor in the film as the detectives critique the people involved in the heist. I actually became worried at times for them because I figured they’d miss something in their goofing off.
The picture’s biggest accomplishment comes in the form of its editing, also by Murphy. Keeping this story coherent is a tall order, but Murphy’s editing and script make it look easy. I was even able to keep the tapes and footage straight myself by the time the film’s third act rolled around, which confirms the film’s success as a tight mystery.
While the story is plenty engrossing, it only contains one true twist and several red herrings. Some are likely to guess the resolution by the halfway point, but that does not defeat the film at all. The other complaint I have simply comes with the territory with the way the movie is structured, but there are no characters here to identify with from an emotional standpoint. Our “heroes,” in a matter of speaking, are Blue and Scotty, but we never even see them, which will undoubtedly cause some to become detached from the narrative.
Quibbles aside, 21 Eyes is a courageous, absorbing, and unique piece of indie film making. It comes to no surprise at all that it was an official selection at twelve major film festivals over the past few years. It’s a must-see for indie film enthusiasts and a much-needed diversion from the stale Hollywood fare of late for everyone else.
Studio: Vanguard Cinema
Length: 86 Minutes
Rating: Not Rated (Contains violence and language)
Theatrical Release: November 1, 2003 (Annapolis Film Festival) / November 9, 2003 (Milwaukee International Film Festival) / March 10, 2004 (Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival) / September 23, 2005 (Digital Theatrical Release)
Directed by: Lee Bonner
Written by: Lee Bonner & Sean Paul Murphy.
Cast: Fisher Stevens (voice), Michael Buscemi (voice), Rebecca Mader, Nestor Serrano, Chance Kelly, Richard Pelzman