Like a lot of other Nicolas Roeg films, Eureka feels like a traditional movie that has been chopped up, remixed, amplified and filtered through Roeg's very specific collection of fetishes and obsessions. Roeg is an inconsistent filmmaker (sometimes ping-ponging from brilliance to silliness within the span of mere minutes), but a consistently interesting one: his failures tend to be every bit as memorable as his successes.
The film begins in the Canadian wilderness circa 1925, where we find gold prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman, The French Connection) – based on real-life prospector Sir Harry Oakes - engaged in a heated brawl with a man who wants to be his business partner. “I never made a nickel off another man's sweat,” Hackman roars. If he finds gold, he's going to keep every last cent of it for himself. Even so, he hasn't had much luck so far, and he's seen a lot of other men in his profession driven to madness by their despair. Eventually, Jack has an encounter with a mysterious fortune teller (Helena Kalianiotes), who declares that Jack is going to have everything his heart desires. Sure enough, Jack subsequently stumbles (quite literally) into a gold mine.
This opening half-hour is the film's richest and most fascinating section; a portrait of Herzogian madness that builds to one of the most memorable sequences of Roeg's career: when Jack strikes it rich, the entire screen is flooded with gold while the soundtrack is flooded by Wagner's powerful “Vorspiel.” It's pure cinematic ecstasy... an emotional high point that Jack will never reach again.
From here, we move forward twenty years, and find Jack a wealthy, lazy man who fears that everyone around him – his best friend Charles (Ed Lauter, The Artist), his wife Helen (Jane Lapotaire, The Young Messiah), his spoiled daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell, Insignificance), his daughter's boyfriend Claude (Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner) – is trying to take everything he has. Truth be told, his fears seem to be well-founded. He has everything he's ever wanted, but seems profoundly unhappy, spending most of his time attempting maintain control of the life he's created for himself.
The basic idea of the film is a riff on the central theme of Citizen Kane (and a lot of other movies, for that matter): that getting everything you want in life can be more of a curse than a blessing. However, the film's delivery of this simple moral is anything but straightforward, as Roeg takes all sorts of strange, dreamlike detours on his way to this film's version of a Kane-style ending. Religious iconography turns up all over the place, supernatural forces (of various sorts!) seem to be intervening rather directly in the lives of the characters and almost every strand of the plot eventually works its way into dark sexual territory (one of the film's most bizarre scenes is a deeply unpleasant-looking orgy involving lots of writhing snakes wriggling around the writhing human bodies).
I won't pretend to be able to decode all of this imagery – with a handful of exceptions, I've always found getting on Roeg's wavelength to be more than a little tricky – but again, it's never dull. It's also fascinating to observe the way that Roeg's actors seem to be performing on different wavelengths: Hackman is his usual grounded, snarling self, but Hauer (cool, detached, sometimes sinister, sometimes not) has some of the otherworldly oddness that David Bowie brought The Man Who Fell to Earth, while Russell's turn is volatile and emotionally-charged. There's also a solid turn from Joe Pesci (Raging Bull) as an American gangster named Mayakofsky (clearly modeled on Meyer Lansky), who has a nice little speech about how, “everyone's an American now.”
The film never matches the best moments of its opening section, but curiously enough, that works on a thematic level. The most striking idea here is that chasing a prize is ultimately more rewarding than actually getting one. In Roeg's eyes, once you've achieved everything you set out to achieve, the absurdity and meaninglessness of life begins to make itself apparent. Eureka!
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Year: 1983