TRIPLE FEATURE

Ways of Seeing
On The Eyes of Tammy FayeMogul Mowgli, & The Voyeurs
SEPTEMBER 22, 2021
  

Jessica Chastain in 2021's "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."

Jessica Chastain in 2021's The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

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didn’t know much about The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s subjects — the one-time mega-popular televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker — when I bought my ticket to see it. Though I did know, vaguely, that their very names are mired in scandal: these vulgar purveyors of the prosperity gospel

were eventually ruined by tabloid-baiting financial and sexual misconduct. I also knew, and better, the eyes of the title. Because it only takes a look or two at the late Mrs. Bakker to have her distinctive countenance burn into your brain. Huge, crispy hair; thoroughly spray-tanned and foundationed face; brightly lipsticked mouth kept in control by its tattooed-on lip liner; and, especially, those eyes, daubed lavishly with sparkly paint, entrapped by tarantula leg-sized lashes, summited by silent film star-thin eyebrows. 

 

The eyes are the first thing we see in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. When the film opens, in 1994, its title character is sitting in a makeup chair instructing a stylist ostensibly before a show which parts of her face are alterable and which must stay fixed. (Don’t touch the eyes!) The film’s overarching ambition can be assumed when the movie swiftly jumps from 1994 back to 1952, when Tammy Faye is a little girl stealing scenes in church, overwhelmed enough by God’s love to (maybe performatively, maybe not) convulse on the floor, like a blessed-rather-than-endangered Regan fromThe Exorcist (1973). This will be a movie that not only will dramatize the path leading up to that introductory 1994 shot, but also hopefully offer insight into what might have sat behind Tammy Faye’s religiously done-up eyes. 
 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on a 2000 documentary with which it shares a title. Like its fictionalized counterpart, that 21-year-old RuPaul-narrated documentary had similar aspirations to humanize a woman often treated like a ripe-to-be-made-fun-of caricature, especially around the time of her and her to-be-ex-husband’s scandal-ridden downfall. (SNL in particular is responsible for cementing a cartoonish image of Tammy Faye sobbing, black mascara streaming down her face like twin waterfalls — an act she hadn’t done much on her show, but, as it goes so often with satire, one overwrought image to pick at can be enough for a long-running joke.) 
 

This new film, which stars Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye, is of a piece with something like, say, I, Tonya (2017), albeit with less comic snark and visual style. The Eyes of Tammy Faye might have benefited from both those things: the movie treads down the familiar-for-the-biopic rise-fall-redemption path without, like most biographical movies, offering anything that special aside from its lead performance. Everything about it feels too preordained, fixed in place, in service to bare-minimum fact. We never get very caught up in any given moment. (Andrew Garfield has the second-biggest role in the movie as Jim Bakker, but it’s mostly uninteresting mimicry. The false gap tooth that becomes the temporary bullseye of Garfield’s mouth and his bowlish succession of hairstyles are doing about as much work as he is. Save for Cherry Jones’ sometimes-very-funny deadpan as Tammy Faye’s persistently disapproving mother, all the other performances are simply adequate.) 
 

Still, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is worth seeking out, if only because of its lead. Chastain, who is one of our great current actresses, has always been an equal parts technically and emotionally attuned performer. You can feel her trying mightily, in all her work, to uncover maybe even more emotional truth than necessary. She’s an extraordinarily empathetic actress you never detect phoning it in; you feel her care for the people she’s playing even when they’re more contemptible than they aren’t. 
 

Her work in The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t spotless. It’s strikingly awkward during the early sections of the movie, when Chastain is reliving Tammy Faye’s teens and early 20s under smudgy prosthetic cheeks. (I imagine some of this has to do with the fact that there isn’t as much archival footage of these years from which Chastain can build a rounded characterization.) But once we get to the stretches where the Bakkers have reached massive-scale popularity, with even more ascendance ahead of them, Chastain, who you can tell worked hard to master Tammy Faye’s tic of a fake laugh, convinces us pretty efficiently that she’s found this woman’s core. Per Vanity Fair, Chastain marked her script with choreographic notes to remind herself which lines should come with which kind of gesture accented by which scrupulously manicured hand. This behind-the-scenes diligence works for better and for worse (those clearly self-conscious early acts). 
 

You can tell Chastain is having a blast with this different-from-anything-she’s-done acting challenge. As the exertions to embody become less obvious, Chastain does some of her best work, like the scene where she reinhabits the anomalously progressive Tammy Faye’s still very-admirable interview with a gay priest who is HIV-positive, or, at the end of the movie, when she’s singing in front of an unenthusiastic audience with the chutzpah of a performer who has sold out a stadium replete with pyrotechnics and a stage-size American flag. (Chastain did all her own singing; it’s a lucky thing that Tammy Faye’s belting style was attainable — on-pitch though tonally ordinary — rather than unachievably spectacular.) 
 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is committed about inhabiting what it perceives to be its title subject’s point of view — totally oblivious to the shady stuff her husband was doing; totally genuine in everything she believed and said. But while this myopic approach works in some ways — it helps encourage genuine sympathy for its eponymous figure — it disappointingly supersedes secondary narrative detours that might have made this movie a more substantive, and more interesting, exploration of a knotty story. 
 

It doesn’t engage much with the surrounding cultural climate or mores in which Jim and Tammy Faye made their names. The movie largely exists in a glass bubble locked by doors with cross-shaped keyholes, unlocked most often by the comparatively bigoted and mean Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Without the infrequent time stamps, we’d even struggle to guess exactly which year it was. (Sometimes we forget that Tammy Faye and Jim had two kids, too. Scenes with the first-born are mostly wordless, and with the youngest we pretty much only get the dramatically delicious sordid reason why Tammy Faye went into labor to begin with.) 
 

And the film surprisingly only vaguely occupies itself with the rape accusations against Jim. It never mentions the alleged victim, Jessica Hahn, by name. Instead, it defines her solely as a “screamer” who haunts the phone lines through which the Bakkers amassed massive personal fortune under the auspices of philanthropy on their TV show. The film posits that Tammy Faye, in turning a blind eye to and/or outright never questioning her husband’s bad behavior, wasn’t being knowingly malicious, but was rather misguidedly applying her determination to see the best in people to situations in which it oughtn’t belong. This may be true, but the extent to which the movie suggests Tammy Faye seldom critically thought strikes us as a generous read; one can almost be certain that there was far more awareness of and talk about Jim’s sexual misconduct than the film allocates. 
 

Holistically The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn’t have for itself what’s so good about Chastain’s central performance: an almost-frightening dedication to strangle as much reality as possible from a mode of expression that is fundamentally artificial. Chastain’s work comes close to a kind of embodiment that effectively manifests a cliché critics love to dispose of when a performer has done a particularly excellent job summoning the spirit of a real-life subject: that after a certain point, you’re deluded into believing you’re watching the real thing. But the movie in which Chastain is doing that impressive stuff doesn’t fool us so well. Like the rhetoric the Bakkers espoused in their heyday, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is missing something.

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arlier this year, Riz Ahmed got a Best Actor nomination for his work in Sound of Metal (2020). In that emotionally lucid, sometimes devastating drama, Ahmed played a rock drummer forced to rethink everything about his life after his hearing, without warning, began to irreperably

deteriorate. From a distance, it may seem like his follow-up project, Mogul Mowgli — in which he portrays an up-and-coming rapper whose career is thrown into a tailspin after discovering he has a rare autoimmune disease rapidly weakening his muscles — may be more of the same. (It’s worth noting that the similarly-premised Mogul Mowgli was actually in development farther back than Sound of Metal, which Ahmed wasn’t originally attached to; the timing of these movies’ releases and close-to-identical conceits are purely coincidental.) 

 

Mogul Mowgli charts a divergent path. It dwells more in the immediate crisis; is more exploratory of its protagonist’s musical artistry and identity (this medical setback introduces itself soon after he returns to his native Pakistan, after two years away, to visit family); and takes a more sensory approach to his agonized swirl of emotions. It often spends long stretches inside what appear to be hallucinations in which his subconscious fears become manifestly real. We can assume Mogul Mowgli is a little more personal for Ahmed, too. He co-wrote the movie, and, like the character he plays, has a rap career he tends to in addition to his steadily stellar acting life. The biggest divergence between Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli is probably that the latter plainly isn’t as good as its thematically complementary counterpart. Its approach is so literal that we notice less how it’s actually making us feel and more how the movie wants us to feel. 
 

The surrealism it employs is too instructive, and clashes with the kitchen-sink shooting style. It doesn’t complement the drama but unnecessarily belabors a perspective already made clear through the frequently expositional dialogue, Ahmed’s typically resonant acting, and the rap lyrics to which the film wants us to pay close attention. The interjections of surrealistic imagery also tend to arrive before the emotional arc of a given scene can come full circle. (Ahmed’s character most often has visions of a death-like figure dressed in traditional wedding garb.) They foil emotional momentum, and, contrary to what they’re aiming to do — give more clues into its principal character’s psyche so that we can better empathize with him — tends to immediately throw ice on a particularly roiling scene. 
 

There are a few moments of true vitality that director Bassam Tariq doesn’t accidentally sabotage via gauche visual segues: a tense encounter with a fan in an alleyway; a foolish but affectingly vulnerable phone call to an ex as our lead prepares to freeze his sperm. (The experimental treatment he agrees to to treat his autoimmune disorder could cause permanent infertility.) Ahmed is, as always, very good. But Mogul Mowgli is otherwise destructively overworked.

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he sleek and spacey Montreal apartment the young couple at the center of The Voyeurs moves into at the beginning of the movie is basically all windows and high ceilings. It’s almost a mirror image of the one occupied by the couple living directly across the street. In The Voyeurs, a homage

to the erotic thrillers of the late-1980s and early ‘90s timed just right for this abnormally chaste modern cinematic era, this catnip-for-the-nosy architectural layout has its friendly-to-voyeurism potential realized by the newly-moved-in couple, Pippa and Thomas (Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith), their first night in, when they notice the couple across the way having rough sex on the kitchen counter. 

 

Secondhand embarrassed for this unwittingly spied-on (and apparently curtainless) pair — we’ll call them Brent and Margot (Ben Hardy and Natasha Liu Bordizzo), as Pippa and Thomas do while gawking — Pippa looks away and successfully gets Thomas to, too. They’re giggling as they put to rest their inner perverts for the night. But the voyeuristic willpower of this professionally and romantically comfortable young couple dwindles in the ensuing days. For Pippa and Thomas, it’s like the very attractive, frequent sex- and spat-having Brent and Margot are putting on a show for them. Soon enough they’re binge-watchers, forgetting to have qualms about leering at their neighbors through binoculars, angling laser pointers just so through the window to pick up enough soundwaves to clue into conversations. 
 

Just like in spiritual forebears Rear Window (1954), Body Double (1984), and The Bedroom Window (1987), this increasingly getting-out-of-control voyeurism will inevitably have drastic consequences in The Voyeurs, especially after it’s confirmed Brent is for sure cheating (he’s a big-time photographer who habitually takes advantage of his models) and Pippa decides that Margot, ethical consequences be damned, should know about it. It will also inevitably engender big plot twists, all of which are surprising, true. But they’re also pretty dumb — dumb enough to dull some of the glow of a movie that otherwise recapitulates with a contagious sense of fun the glossy-but-scuzzy pleasures of a very sorely missed genre where sex and death are eternally locked in a titillating tango. 
 

The Voyeurs also makes clearer than it needs to its central preoccupation — how the voyeurism as witnessed in those above-mentioned movies has evolved for the Instagram age, wherein across-the-street obsessions may pale in comparison to what is readily available online. Though some of that didactic awkwardness is nullified by the visually entertaining if admittedly on-the-nose inclusion of optometric iconography (Pippa works at an eye doctor’s office) and the inspired casting of Sweeney, who has among the most disarming pairs of eyes in her generation of actors. They’re so big and expressive that they seem to practically inhale everything around them. In a movie that both thrillingly and a little sillily appreciates the pleasures and pains of watching what one oughtn’t, Sweeney’s eyes are a mooney home base.

 

The Eyes of Tammy FayeB- 

Mogul MowgliC+

The VoyeursB