Eyes Wide Shut and the Moral Bankruptcy of the American Elite

We never fully knew what nefarious crimes Jeffrey Epstein committed and encouraged in his disturbing misadventures among America’s millionaires and billionaires. Now that he’s dead, we’re likely never going to find out. Justice has failed dramatically, encouraging us to think that the rich and powerful—including perhaps two presidents—are above the law and can exploit poorer people with cruel impunity. Whatever happened to equality before the law?

Given the unceasing hysteria emanating from the news-media complex, we’ve hardly even seen real journalistic coverage of this story. If we wish to understand what’s happening to some of our elites, we had better turn instead to more durable sources of wisdom—poetry and film, above all. In this case, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, now on its 20th anniversary: a story about an upper-middle class couple almost destroyed by contact with rich perverts like Epstein.

As the millennium approaches, Bill and Alice Harford—Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman back when they were the biggest star couple in Hollywood—are guests at a Christmas party thrown by Bill’s richest client. They don’t know any of the other guests, all of whom seem richer and more sophisticated. Both, however, are tempted by erotic fantasies. Alice’s takes the shape of a sophisticated, vaguely aristocratic European man who might be her father—Bill’s appears as a couple of beautiful young women, provocative and decidedly unsophisticated.

Alice, though drunk and flirting, refuses to give in to her desire—she’s married. Bill, who is clueless and thus seems coy, is interrupted by his rich client, who needs him to save a young prostitute who has overdosed. Bill, we will learn, is a very successful Manhattan doctor with a private practice. Here, he serves an opulent man who plays with the lives of others. Bill, of course, will be discreet about his client’s adultery, drug habits, and other shady behavior.

Bill and Alice are not outraged by the immorality they observe among the rich, because they want to join them. Normal life doesn’t offer them the happiness they desire. A conventional marriage, a child, money, success—this they already have and find wanting. In a revealing scene, Bill and Alice smoke marijuana and she takes her revenge on his medical assumption that she, a woman, would naturally be faithful to him by telling him she once contemplated abandoning him and their daughter for a dashing naval officer.

This fantasy is romantic to the point of boring sentimentality in the post-hippie era, when sexual violence, with and without consent, has become routine in entertainment. Thus, it suggests an aristocratic ambition missing in the savagery of the age of liberation. It demonstrates that eros has a power that conventional morality can neither harness nor tame—one that can destroy a family in a heartbeat.

Having left their child—the embodiment of their innocence—at home, Bill and Alice were looking for trouble at that party. They were seeking new fantasies, and indeed proved that there was something important missing in their lives—a dangerous thing to learn. Their later conversation adds motive to opportunity—self-awareness comes to them as a guilty desire to break laws, faith, and trust.

They are family-first Americans only by convention, not by faith. They are typical of many celebrities and businessmen looking for international fame. Indeed, many Americans secretly wish to escape the confines and moral demands of America, because America has in their estimation failed to make them happy. They hope instead that some erotic, if criminal, bender will lead them to happiness by revealing a hidden inner power that neither morality nor intellect can censor. They want liberation and understand anything less as tyranny.

Contrast this with normal post-hippie Americans, who in response to marital unhappiness simply practiced with abandon the previously rarer ritual of legal divorce. They first looked for love in the wrong places, then turned the desire for adultery into a moral principle of personal liberation with legal power, at the cost of sanity and happiness for millions of children—to say nothing of decency or the institution of marriage. We reconceived marriage as a contract that could be breached unilaterally without penalties. Happiness was attempted on the basis of betrayal. Their children have refrained from marriage in ways unprecedented in American history.

Bill and Alice are neither rich degenerates nor normal divorcées. They are too proud to be vulgar; but for that very reason they suspect that our ugliest secrets are the only keys to happiness. Alice is satisfied with the revengeful revelation, plus drinking and recreational drugs. But Bill is morally demolished by this revelation—he desperately needed to believe in her faithfulness to him.

Eyes Wide Shut is thus the story of one man’s temptation to become one of the hidden aristocrats of America, who use their money to buy secret orgies wherein they debase themselves like beasts, proving that they can also dominate any number of poorer Americans. For a time, they feel as though they are gods—beyond good and evil.

In reality, however, the aristocrats are only vulgarians playing snobs. They don’t merely wish to prove the corrupting power of money and the weakness of morality: They are willing even to murder to prove their point, so Bill learns the seriousness of his sin. Bill is less a lover than a beloved, which you can easily believe gazing upon Tom Cruise. He feels empty inside because he does not feel the strong, overpowering desire that gives Alice an identity through a guilty secret.

A chance encounter with an old schoolmate who turned to jazz instead of a prestigious medical career leads Bill to become curious about the possibility of being defined by desire, not respectability. Bill longs to fulfill Alice’s fantasy—to be a man she might surrender to erotically. But his attempt to pick up a prostitute is both embarrassing and endearing. Then a married daughter of another rich client, recently deceased, also tries and fails to seduce him. Instead, he attends an orgy.

The price Bill pays for this sin is the shock of the story. The prostitute whose life he had saved at the party sacrifices her life to save his. She had no innocence left, but wished to make a moral separation between her world and his, and was willing to die to protect him from a knowledge that would corrupt him. She wanted him to be more moral than he could be. Indeed, Bill is hardly capable of understanding the nobility of her sacrifice.

Bill and Alice show us how elites become corrupt. The poor, after all, may believe money makes for happiness—hence the attraction of the welfare-redistribution state—but the rich, with a certainty lacking in innocence and born of experience, know that it doesn’t. This fact may desiccate their souls, and in so doing may tempt them to find a criminal, even monstrous path to happiness should the conventional ones disappoint.

Kubrick shows that at the end of history, morality, and Christianity, some Americans will imitate European aristocrats at their irresponsible worst. Degeneracy would be their last act in search of liberation. This is the final route for the rich to separate themselves from the poor, but also from the poverty in their own souls—that sense of an emptiness that demands fulfilling. Again, poor people may live with modest hopes and try hard to achieve them—but the rich have to set, in some ways, the purposes of society, given their vast influence, riches, and access to offices or office-holders. So elites either act justly, or begin to succumb to terrifying temptations.

Should the rich cease to believe in America’s justice, they will not leave it at the mercy of those quotidian vices to which the poor are sometimes given, debasing as those are. Instead, they might want to corrupt everything they can in order to take revenge for the greatest prank in world history: To have arrived at the top of the pyramid in the greatest power in world history only to find out it’s not worth how hard it is to survive in that station. The revenge of sexual corruption and the self-debasement it invites—that’s simply the most obvious marker of elites who have collapsed morally.

Alice’s overpowering desire and Bill’s overpowering jealousy are of a piece. They are answers to a lack of purpose, and reflect a suspicion that all purposes we might discover for life are conventional lies. These are important signs of weakness in people who are publicly admired and have risen to the top. But the power of America as a nation does not make individual Americans similarly powerful, especially not when it comes to their souls. Indeed, we all believe our elites are not our superiors in mind or heart. Why then do they wield untold powers and unaccountable influence—and how could that fail to corrupt them?

Kubrick masterfully illustrates the complexity of our situation: it would be fanciful to say that more technology, or even refined political technology, i.e. institutions, would prevent elites’ abuses of power. So would wishing away America as it has become. But if we instead try to understand the moral and intellectual sources of the corruption of elites, we, like Bill, might begin to fear for our morality and, indeed, sanity. Eyes Wide Shut warns us that failure to censure our elites will lead us to dangerous depths of the soul, but so will trying to do so.

Horror awaits those who want splendid cruelty to replace a boring middle-class life. Kubrick orchestrates the orgy Bill attends as a black mass—a religious ritual in Romanian is played backwards on the soundtrack. This attack on Christianity ends with a human sacrifice, showing that the New World is not safe from the madness of the Old World. Self-debasement need not remain a hobby—it could become the sexual slavery Epstein practiced. This is not just sin and crime, but an attempt to educate elites to treat their fellow Americans as beasts.

Readers may be interested to hear the author discuss the film with Tyler Malone here.