Nicolas Roeg’s overlooked saga about the spectacular rise and fall of a gold prospector is a rich and audacious masterwork.
English literature sprang from two works of the 17th century, the plays of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible. One tradition is opulent, chaotic, luxurious and indulgent; the other is disciplined, austere, skinny and sharp. One is a meadow; the other’s a lawn. And so it is with British cinema. We have the lawn cinema of David Lean, Merchant Ivory and The King’s Speech, and we have the wild flowers and nettle stings of Lindsay Anderson, Ken Russell and Ben Wheatley. The outstanding artist of the latter tradition is Nicolas Roeg, who from his collaboration on Performance in 1970 went on to direct a string of bizarre, crotchety, uncomfortable and fiercely odd masterpieces. Following the acknowledged brilliance of Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing saw Roeg entering the 80s with a fractured sexual relationship and a typically daring play on chronology. The obstinate insistence on originality was not well received in a decade that would prize muscles and franchises.
His follow-up Eureka in 1983 likewise sailed against the prevailing winds of capitalist triumphalism and nascent yuppiedom. Gene Hackman plays Jack McCann, a prospector in the frozen Yukon, battling against the elements and whose cussed stubbornness is finally rewarded with a gold strike. If things spill and smash in the dirty Venice of Don’t Look Now, here in Eureka everything bursts. It might be the back of a suicidal man’s head as the bullet smashes through it, or it could be the wall of a cave as it collapses and almost drowns Jack in a gold-laden torrent. The irreversible suddenness of the now is caught by the title – an instantaneous revelation of how the universe operates – and Roeg’s interests are a deep consideration on the hidden cogs and wires that pull at life and fate and the violence that can at any moment flare up.
With the gold found and riches won, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg overleap Jack’s success and land once more in failure decades later. Now Jack is the richest man in the world, living on a Caribbean island surrounded by natives he holds in racist contempt, a wife he largely ignores and a sycophantic and untrustworthy friend Charles (Ed Lauter), who is conspiring against him. His one consolation might be his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) with whom he shares a close friendship, but her elopement and marriage to playboy Claude (Rutger Hauer) suggest that Jack is being destroyed by the gold that has made him rich. Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci are two mobbed up accountants seeking, with the sneaky aid of Charles, to open a casino on the island and slowly realizing that Jack is an immoveable object with too much ‘fuck you’ money to be bought.
‘Once I had it all. Now I just have everything,’ Jack says. His self-mythologizing as the ultimate self-made man – ‘I never lived off the sweat of another man’s brow’ – and his Croesus-like wealth don’t however make him invulnerable and there is a weary acceptance to his fate as he, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Roeg would later make a TV movie adaptation of Heart of Darkness), welcomes his murderers into his lair either as a blessed relief or a longed-for challenge. But when it comes Jack’s murder is no soft euthanasia but one of the most brutal and violent slaughters ever put on screen. With the rain pouring outside and a blow torch brought into play, it is almost as if Jack is an ancient God who needs not simply to be killed, but to be cleansed, defaced and utterly destroyed. His murder is preceded by a black magic orgy that Claude participates in. Sex bursts through Eureka as a violent compulsion, an appetite to be assuaged, but also a link to life and death moments. Jack will be guided to the gold by a brothel-keeper/soothsayer and Claude’s orgy is an attempt to establish an alibi and also cleanse the would-be assassin.
The remaining court scenes are an extended coda as the legal formalities of blame and aftermath insufficiently wrap up the violent eruption while the money men sit at the back. It is now Tracy who shows that her father’s obstinate will has lived on in her, but now graced by her own continued zest for life and capacity to love.
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Eureka is a bold uncompromising work by a filmmaker at the height of his powers who seems intent on throwing it all away. Its influence can be seen throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Today more than ever it seems a prescient critique of a philosophy that places so much value on a rare but practically unaccomplished metal.