Eyes Wide Shut’s Ending with Nicole Kidman Is Darker Than You Remember

The final seconds between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut are also the only moments of warmth in the film. But does it represent a light at the end of a tunnel or the beginning of a new chapter of sexual despair?

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut Ending
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

At the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife Alice come together in that most normative of spaces: an FAO Schwarz toy store. As they watch their daughter look at potential presents, Bill feebly tries to explain his sexual sojourn through the city we just watched, one prompted by Alice’s confession of lust for a random sailor. Upon the completion of Bill’s story, Alice declares, “There is something we need to do as soon as possible.” What’s that, her husband and the audience asks? Fuck.”

The camera holds on her face for a beat or two and then cuts to black. End of movie.

Between Nicole Kidman’s percussive line delivery, Tom Cruise’s bewildered expression, and the sudden cut to credits, Alice’s statement feels definitive. Yet, like every other part of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s final film, the word is both precise and beguiling, something that invites questions and rejects simple interpretation.

Open Eyes

Based on the Austrian novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, Eyes Wide Shut is very much an odyssey in the classic sense of the word. It traces Bill’s voyage into the darker, sexual side of New York City, beginning with him fleeing the home after he decides he cannot stay there a moment longer. It then ends with him returning to his household, restored but changed.

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Unlike Homer’s Odysseus and Penelope, however, Alice has considered cheating on her husband in the years since their marriage. After a first act that establishes Alice and Bill as a couple so devoted to their lives and daughter that not even aggressive flirtation from a suave Hungarian man or young supermodels can distract them, the second act begins with Alice and Bill getting high and arguing. Alice chides Bill for the certainty he has in his marriage, his belief that he would never cheat and, more importantly, that Alice would never cheat because women don’t have the same level of desire as men.

Kidman gives a searing performance in the bedroom scene, at once aggressive and vulnerable and mercurial. She moves across the room during the discussion, coiling herself around her husband, standing over him, collapsing to the floor in a laughing fit, and staring him down. Bill meanwhile remains inert on the bed, grounded in his certainty. Even when she delivers a monologue about an alluring sailor that Alice wanted so badly that she would give up her family, Kidman keeps the desperation behind her character’s desire. She plays Alice as a predator, one suffocated by the enclosure of her life and willing to do anything for freedom.

Alice’s speech sets Bill off on his journey, which is far less sexy than many assume. Eyes Wide Shut hit theaters in 1999 rife with erotic expectations. Rumors surrounded the content of the film, with many expecting to see Cruise and Kidman—then a married Hollywood power couple—performing unsimulated sex acts on screen. The movie initially received an NC-17 rating before digital alterations, and a secret orgy at the center of the film figured heavily in the marketing.

Yet the actual film is anything but sex-positive. The various women who throw themselves at Bill evoke empathy and disgust in viewers instead of arousing them, such as the grieving daughter (Marie Richardson) who begs him to take her while her father’s body lies in the other room or the costume seller Milich (Rade Šerbedžija), who offers Bill his underage daughter (Leelee Sobieski). Bill comes close to being with the sex worker called Domino (Vinessa Shaw), only to discover the next day that she’s HIV-positive.

While the much-vaunted orgy does feature plenty of female nudity, Kubrick shoots it with such a blasé camera that any sexual intrigue easily drops away once Bill discovers that the secret society has discovered his identity and plans to punish him. Except for Alice, the only palpable sexual energy Bill sees comes from a coy hotel clerk played by a delightful Alan Cumming. Throughout his brief interaction with the doctor, the clerk keeps giving Bill knowing looks, at once suggesting that he understands who Bill is and inviting Bill to explore more.

In short, Bill’s sexual voyage is thoroughly impotent, up until the moment he returns home.

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Shut Eyes

On the surface, Alice and Bill’s final conversation confirms the movie’s fundamentally normative ethos. Whatever their various temptations, Bill and Alice believe that sex belongs only within their marriage. So after pretending to have sex with other people, the two understand that they’ll find fulfillment only in one another. It’s very important that the two have sex as soon as possible because the marriage has been tested and is in need of repair.

To be clear, that’s not an invalid reading. Not only does it fit the plot, but Kubrick presents the final conversation with a warmth and openness missing from the rest of the film. Although he has a reputation for chilliness, Kubrick knows how to portray emotional richness when the story calls for it (see the desperation in Sterling Hayden’s character who fears for America’s bodily fluids in Doctor Strangelove or even the scenes between Wendy and Danny in The Shining). Against the hermetic feel of the rooms and city streets earlier in the film, all shot on soundstages that Kubrick had constructed in England, the toy store feels wide and inviting.

However, the happy home reading puts far too much weight on the end of the film, overlooking much of what came before.

At no point in Eyes Wide Shut does Kubrick portray sex as a good thing. In every case, it involves arguments, exploitation, or death. The heavy flirting that opens the movie gives way to Bill checking in on a sex worker (Julienne Davis) on the verge of an overdose after his rich friend Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) assaulted her. The pack of bros who attack Bill with homophobic slurs boast about their exploits first, and keep their threatening language focused on sex. Bill spends the entire orgy hiding or under the threat of death. Even when he almost has sex with Domino, he spends more time negotiating terms than he does showing any real desire.

Given the way sex occurs in the rest of the film, Alice’s demand at the end of the film could be read as a threat. Alice doesn’t say that she and Bill need to make love or restore intimacy. She says that they need to “fuck,” a word that Kidman seems to bite off as soon as it leaves her lips. There’s an aggressiveness to the statement, which echoes Alice’s bedroom confession at the start of the movie, in which she also sneers the word fuck.

While there’s certainly evidence to confirm this reading, it isn’t perfect, nor does it foreclose the more hopeful interpretation. Rather these and other possibilities exist at the same time.

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Wide Eyes

The irony in The Odyssey is that Odysseus spends the entire story fighting to get back to Penelope, only to think about leaving home again. There’s a sense of unfulfillment to Odysseyus’ situation, as he keeps moving in a circle and never getting what he wants or needs.

Alice’s demand might set Bill on a similar loop. After all of his adventures, he comes back home to her only to find her once again aggressive and demanding in her sexuality, in a way that frightens him. Perhaps in those final seconds, Alice looks at Bill knowing that he’ll be off again.

More importantly, the odyssey structure in Eyes Wide Shut applies best to interpretations of the movie, especially the final line. No interpretation completely makes sense, no reading satisfies every question. The best we can do is posit a possibility before finding it insufficient, moving on to other possibilities.

That makes sense for a movie like Eyes Wide Shut, which is fundamentally about dissatisfaction and fruitless searches, which never come to completion. No matter how badly we want fulfillment and completion, the demand to “fuck” sends us spiraling off again, trying to make sense of the film. And like Bill, it might leave him unfulfilled and searching for new meaning.