Dimension Films/MGM (2005) 118 min. PG-13
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel; Editing: Lesley Walker
Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas; Set Decoration: Judy Farr; Costumes: Gabriella Pescucci & Carlo Poggioli; Score: Dario Marianelli
Stars: Matt Damon (Wilhelm Grimm), Heath Ledger (Jacob Grimm), Lena Headey (Angelika), Peter Stormare (Cavaldi), Jonathan Pryce (Delatombe), Monica Bellucci (Mirror Queen), Tomás Hanák (Woodsman), Martin Kavan (Delatombe’s Valet)
There’s a haze of droll waggishness floating about Terry Gilliam’s phantasmagoric fantasy that never quite materializes into definite physical form. The Brothers Grimm remains a leering, overspilling, grotesque gargoyle of a movie yet, unlike most films of similar caliber, the dim light of what was in theory a bright idea almost manages to shine through the muck and mire shoveled atop it. It’s not all bad.
In the beginning, the two Grimms have set themselves up as antique-era Ghostbusters, touring from hamlet to hamlet like strolling players, deploying their archaic arsenal of state of the art gadgetry. “Don’t be afraid. I know this sophisticated technology must look very strange to you,” one reassures onlookers, while taking a reading with what appears to be a stainless steel stethoscope on calipers. It’s like something engineered by Buster Keaton. The opening scene, conceptualized in a surreal fever, as though being seen through the eyes of the medicated local miller, is a visual doozy (especially the eerie sight of the screeching wraith descending upside down from the ceiling, a billowy banshee), even the twist at the end comes as a genuine surprise. It proves the only passage in The Brothers Grimm that fully lived up to what this movie promised to be. It’s a pity we couldn’t trail the men around on more mock up exorcisms, especially since, we’re informed, they have been on plenty others (aside from the Mill Witch of Karlstadt, they claim to have vanquished “the frog boy of Duddenhoff and the cannibal chef of Schwarzburg in his gingerbread house of terror.”). They’re a hoot.
Gilliam seems to have intended shaping this unformed film into an allegory on the art of movie making itself, the new means of fairy telling for a technological age, in which people are paid fabulous sums to peddle their fantasies for public consumption. Even the vainglorious Mirror Queen’s obsession with beauty and youth restoratives links her with the stereotype of the aging, plastic surgery preoccupied Hollywood diva. She’s a Neolithic Norma Desmond, her world a vanity mirror. For their part, the Grimm brothers, 17th century celebrities (“So tell me again, famous brothers Grimm, how exactly do you intend to save us?” Angelika seethes), drop their name about wherever they go, expecting to be feted and fawned over, accorded the red carpet treatment, though it’s highly unlikely illiterate peasants would be familiar with these authors’ works, especially since they haven’t even been written yet (they’re supposed to be celebrated at this point exclusively for their ghostbusting exploits). When Jonathan Pryce’s Delatombe tries to destroy Jacob’s ledger, tossing it onto his funeral pyre with the ironic comment “Adieu Grimms, and farewell to your tales, they will not be remembered. Burn them,” we’re put in mind of all those long lost early movie fantasies that have indeed gone up in smoke, “lost to the ravages of time and nitrate decomposition.”
There’s a hint of Shakespeare in Love in these fright shows as well, staged as cathartic theater in the park for the benefit of locals, a hammy actor’s delight in performance for performance’s sake. “Just once, I’d like to sell it on the strength of my performance,” decries one minstrel about resorting to smoke and mirror effects, all unawares that the movie will soon fall back on those same old reliables itself, at the expense of the drama. Matt Damon’s Wilhelm (a name which also recalls Will Shakespeare) Grimm plays director, keeping his troops in line (“We do all the flying, the burning, the scaring,” they complain, “What do we have to show for it?” “Talk to Napoleon,” is this SAG nominee’s farseeing response, “Organize your labors. Start a guild.”), by stroking their temperamental egos (“You, my friend, have talent, range… and you, my handsome friend, have heart.”), and beguiling bystanders into handing over large sums of cash with his carnival barker’s spiel. He’s as persuasive as the Pied Piper, an analogy I’m sure Heath Ledger’s Jacob Grimm would love.
The excitable Jacob is his brother’s total opposite. Ingenuous to the point of naivety and weaned on a steady diet of fairy lore (supposedly he was a scholar once- was folklore 101 an elective course in 17th century studies?), he’s managed to retain the faith of a child. Like the little boy Will hands his tankard to, Jacob likewise can’t hold his ale. He’d get drunk on a glass of milk; superstitious folk tales are his drug of choice. Just as Jake possesses the fervent passion of a true believer, he also harbors the burning soul of a suffering artist (“I do a little drawing myself,” he reveals looking over some of Angelika’s sketches), as he proves when he begins spontaneously penning a poem, the enchanted forest serving as his muse. This is how, the movie posits, The Brothers Grimm came to compose their fairy tales in the first place, inspired by real-life events. It’s the same spin Shakespeare gave us on how the spark was ignited that became Romeo and Juliet, marking it as a derivative idea, derivative in a way the Grimm’s own stories, though themselves derived from well known legends and lore, never seemed to be.
Apart from Jacob’s artistic epiphany in the wood, however, little effort is given over to show us how these events are actually influencing the brothers or being stored away for future publication in manuscript form. Jacob totes his diary around with him everywhere he goes, but what he jots down, lab notes not prose, is far from inspiring. How did these stories get from the rough hewn state in which they unfold before our eyes, into the polished, allegorical Grimm Brothers fairy tales we all grew up hearing? Evidently the thrill of watching the artistic process slowly flower is less exciting than seeing long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night blown to smithereens. In most of the buddy movies Matt Damon’s made with other actors, including Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting, Dogma), Edward Norton (Rounders), Gregg Kinnear (Stuck on You), Casey Affleck (Gerry), and Will Smith (The Legend of Bagger Vance), he’s played straight man, affecting a poker faced dramatic gravitas in order to anchor the antics of wild and crazy guys who might otherwise seem slightly off their rockers. The Brothers Grimm is no different. His Will is the wall off whom Jake can bounce his rather outré beliefs, and while it’s fun watching Damon’s impostor try to maintain his cool and composure as events spiral increasingly out of his control (such as when he nearly does handsprings to avoid the toad that must be kissed in order to lead him out of the woods), he seems rather stiff.
Though never proven any great shakes as a comedian before (remember him leaving audiences rolling in the aisles in 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale? Yeah, me neither), it’s Heath Ledger, who steals the show. Almost unrecognizable, buried beneath greasy mutton chops and scraggly beard, his kooky performance is the real treat here and a surprising one because, unlike Damon, who seems above the effort, he bothers to give one. Sporting rounded spectacles, Ledger resembles a scurvy cross between Dr. Caligari and Woody Allen, at his most neurotic. He seems to have finally given up on his misguided bid for super stardom in favor of developing his latent knack for character acting, a career move which has served him in good stead.
During 2005, the actor handed in other uncharacteristically ambitious, image altering work as a big kahuna in The Lords of Dogtown and a taciturn gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, for which he received an Oscar nomination. He’s on a definite roll. Ledger is undeniably mannered as Jacob in The Brothers Grimm, but his florid gestures blend right into the movie’s garish, Grand Guignol woodwork. The character’s been sprinkled with twee, twitchy traits, riddled with coltish gaucheries and nervous tics that I’d find more endearing if the conception didn’t owe such a debt to Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow. Even Jacob’s effete eccentricities seem intended to recall Ichabod Crane. For his part, the stolidly swaggering Damon, who acts with his chest, puffing it out like a pewter pigeon, might as well be doing Brom Bones. But instead of brains vs. brawn, the brothers’ conflict embodies the eternal battle between skepticism and belief.
The movie’s dramatic tension lies in the sibling rivalry of these odd ball brothers Grimm. It’s a rivalry that manifests itself quite literally in the opening scene when the Mill witch possesses their weapons, forcing the brothers to turn their guns and crossbows on each other, just as they’ll later point their knives. Though Jacob describes their relationship in rosy terms, “Nothing comes between us brothers. No wicked witches, and no vicious beasts in disguise, not even godfather Death, cause only the truest of true love could ever beat the Grim Reaper,” their antagonism is apparent from the outset. These two were at each other’s throat long before they ever fell under the witch’s spell. While still a young shaver, Jacob sold the family cow, intended to pay for the doctor to treat an ailing sister, for a handful of what he was fooled into believing were magic beans. Based on this traumatic childhood incident, “Beans!” has become Will’s all-purpose disclaimer for any and all intimations of the supernatural, any incorporeal thing that can’t be tasted, touched, verified.
For example, when his brother cries, “That was real!” his response is “Beans, Jake, magic beans. There’s a rational explanation for all this.” Will’s our post modern man, our window in on this backward world, while still inviting laughter at the quaintness of what his character believes are cutting edge techniques. He’s meant to be the embodiment of the coolly distanced scientific minds of the Age of Reason, a more enlightened era that swept away the superstitions of the Dark Ages, the same way Ichabod was in Sleepy Hollow, and his rationale proves just as flimsy in the face of indisputable evidence of the supernatural (“Will, are you seeing what I’m seeing?”-“I most definitely am not.”), tangible proof of the legends his brother has always clung to so fervently. Tellingly the movie’s climactic confrontation is not between hero and villain, but between the brothers themselves, the wicked queen setting them on each other for real this time (“Fight her…we’re brothers, damn it. Be a Grimm!”), as they repeat the performance they had earlier feigned at the mill.
Their sibling rivalry cuts much deeper than childhood contention. It even transcends the standoff between the Doubting Thomas and the true believer, touching on another antithetical extreme pulling the brothers in opposing directions – the conflict between art and commerce. This theme can be found in the earlier Shakespeare in Love as well. Will’s in this trade to make a quick killing (“This business is quite a lucrative one…” reveals a soused Jacob, nearly spilling the beans, “there is definite money to be made in witches.”), anything he can chisel out of the local populace, whether it be shillings, wine, or the tavern wenches enthralled by the exploits of this conquering hero. He’s quite mercenary. “Will doesn’t care about anyone but himself,” his brother observes, “What is it exactly you do want Will? Is it Angelika? You want her? Is it the money? Take that! That’s all you seem to do these days is take, take, take!” Jacob, on the other hand, is in it strictly for love of the art. He feels he’s compromising his integrity by selling out to the almighty dollar (“I was a scholar once, Will.”- “Now you’re famous. All the girls know your name. What do you want, an apology?”). In a sense he’s correct, but the deep bond between the brothers makes it less easy to peg Damon’s unprincipled entrepreneur as the outright villain of the piece.
We admire the moral Jacob’s upstanding character, but he’s so trusting, so full of illusions (“You actually fall for this spooky dance number,” Will scoffs, “”You moo calf!” “Moon calf,” his brother corrects), he’s like a guileless child who still believes in Santa Clause, ‘once upon a times’ and ‘happily ever afters.’ Will resents being charged with looking out for his only surviving sibling (“Just one second away from life without Jacob,” he muses while helping hoist him up the castle wall), even abandoning him once to the local gendarmes (“Never fear, Jake, I shall return for you!”), but dutifully accepts the responsibility nevertheless. “God, I hate him,” he declares, “He makes you feel weak, doesn’t he?” Angelika offers. “Yeah, he always has done. The thing is, I can’t” “- protect him,” she finishes. No one could.
As such an ingenuous easy mark in this predatory world, the sheepish, wooly headed Jacob leaves himself open to being taken advantage of. He has book learning but no common sense. Will’s trying to render this gullible scholar the benefit of a worldly education (dividing their spoils, he mocks him with “Your half, professor, or would you prefer this in magic beans?”). Jacob needs his overprotective older brother looking out for him, to keep his feet planted firm on the ground. Without him, he’d be a goner. It’s wise ass, street smart Will who’s the pragmatic one. He’s become a user, simply to ensure that he won’t be the one exploited. He’s never trusted a world that duped him so mercilessly as a boy, robbing him of that beloved sister, and has held a grudge against the fairy tales he feels betrayed him ever since. Holding these stories, and those who believe in them, up to ridicule with his fright shows, is this skeptic’s way of sticking it to them. He soothes his guilty conscience by convincing himself that the entertainments he stages are a bright spot in the yokel villager’s otherwise drab lives, harmless, escapist diversions (“It’s a short, bitter struggle, then you die. Life’s little subterfuges make it all worthwhile.”), but the rub is that by pressing the fairy tales Jacob holds dear into disreputable service, he’s doing precisely what he’s always tried to shield his brother from – being taken advantage of. He’s exploiting his own blood kin, picking his brains for an easy buck (“Meet us in Hamburg. Jake knows the legend of a bridge troll there.”).
When he yanks Jacob by the ear as if he were still a child, orders him outside as though speaking to a stable boy (“Wait by the horses, Jacob! Wait by the horses!”), or goes even further, to the point of hitting him to keep him in line, we realize Will’s experiences have left him more callous and embittered than we had first suspected. He still resents the brother who so foolishly sold that cow. “Bring back her sisters?” Will cries, his mind flooded with thoughts of his own when Jacob presumptuously promises Angelika that they’ll do just that, “Bring them back? With what? Magic beans? Magic beans don’t work! They don’t bring people back to life! They did not then, and they will not now!” Will still wants to beat the stuffing out of Jacob, as he did when they were children, and replace it with some good, old-fashioned horse sense.
A trickster, every bit as deceptive as the one he claims to be hunting, Will makes phony, populist speeches, accompanied by soaring, myth making music that undercuts his cruel intentions (“Good citizens, you have nothing further to fear. The brothers Grimm are with you now. Your salvation is at hand.”). Tricked out in suits of armor, like some chivalrous knight errants on horseback, their departure is heralded with the flourish of trumpets. The Brothers Grimm set off to chase after windmills looking as foolish as Don Quixote. Initially Will buys the party line of the ‘enlightened,’ occupying French, that there’s some trickery afoot, that someone is operating a scam similar to the one the Grimms pull themselves, seeing the entire unwieldy enterprise as a special effects masterpiece, comprised of tripwires, pulleys, and moving trees on tracks (“These people are much better funded than we are.”). Will resists the old adage that seeing is believing, confident in his espoused convictions. To Jake’s “General, I believe we witnessed a case of authenticated enchantment,” Will counters, “Don’t say that. We are not saying that. That is not our official position!” But this man of science can not go on denying the obvious facts forever. The enchanted forest is conceptualized as a sort of overgrown extension of Jacob’s fevered mind, a Freudian manifestation of the fairytales that have always fired his imagination. “Nothing makes sense there,” Will relates to Angelika, “It’s like being inside Jake’s head.” Rather than inspiring the stories the Brothers Grimm are soon to write, this wood already seems like an Expressionistic outgrowth of them. Jacob’s head appears to have exploded all over the screen, whipping the mundane and everyday into a whirling dervish of a wonderland. This particular Grimm brother, having safely receded into a dream world of his own fashioning in order to escape from the humdrum reality of daily life, is directly akin to the similar characters conceived by Robin Williams (a bum who believed himself Sir Galahad in quest of the Holy Grail in The Fisher King) and Jonathan Pryce (Brazil’s paper pusher who sprouted steel wings and soared through the heavens) in earlier Terry Gilliam fantasies.
To Jacob, this ancient pagan forest and the “stories to scare children” that inhabit it, means validation, but to an enlightened rationalist like his brother (“This is not your world, Will!”), who long ago put away childish things, even breaking his wooden hobby horse into kindling, it presents the fearful prospect of actually regressing back in time to the superstitious dark ages of his desolate childhood (“I’m terrified. Don’t you understand?”). Even with all his scientific technology, compasses, Geiger counters, Will’s disoriented, lost, out of his element here, forced to rely on an old wives’ tale concerning kissing a toad to find his way back out again. For the first time, in this strange realm where nothing is as it seems, Jacob’s in complete control (“The story, it’s happening to us now. We’re living it. It’s alive, it’s real, it’s breathing. We can give it a happy ending.”). He usurps Will’s designation as the dominant twin (“This changes everything, Will, you know that. My book, where do I start?”).
If the world’s a stage for phony Will, who’s always ‘on,’ always acting, then life’s a novel for Jake, and the enchanted forest is where his story begins. Jacob, who “wishes his whole life were something out of a book,” comes most alive when living out the fairytales he’d only been able to read about before (“All my life I’ve studied these folktales,” he exalts, “and now I find one that’s for real- it’s not beans.”). Proving that he shouldn’t be judged by his cover, this book worm tosses away his nebbishy specs, along with all other physical restrictions, to become a true life man of daring-do, adventure, even romance, rebelling against his disparaging brother’s authority (he finally stands up for himself, punching Will back) and earning his hard won respect, even converting him to his cause (“Honestly, you’re my brother. I want you to believe in me. I want you to help me.”), securing his more practical stratagem for an assault on the queen’s castle (“A catapult won’t work,”- “Aw, you’re right.”). These humbugs reclaim their self respect by becoming the genuine heroes they’d always claimed to be.
As with the aforementioned Brazil and The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm ends up fully justifying its dreamers’ dreams. To director Gilliam, dreams are our most precious, fundamental human right, the one even totalitarian dictatorships can’t root out, as the futuristic thought police of Brazil tried to, and the French, once again, attempt to do here. Without dreams to enrich the everyday and brighten one’s spirits, he cautions, life wouldn’t be worth the living. So it’s Jacob’s world of make believe that the movie ends up validating by morphing its charlatan heroes into the real deal. At day’s end The Brothers Grimm succeed in doing just as they’d promised the “Good people of Marbaden… you shall regain your courage and your joy,” the oppressively dreary village flowering into a sun kissed Pleasantville of smiling, dancing peasants. Even that shield of protective armor supposedly “forged by Prince Richard the Charming” to deflect the powers of evil, which Jacob absconds with, prompting Will to reveal “I made that armor. It’s not magic, it’s just shiny,” ends up reaffirming the faith by serving as the bullet proof vest that saves Capaldi’s life. “Would you call this a turning point?” Jake asks at the finale, and indeed by that time the subtle change that has come over each brother’s personality has brought about a further shift in the dynamics of their relationship. While preceding events have served to convert skeptical Will to Jake’s rather fanciful outlook on life, Jacob, having lived out his fantasy, can now speak intelligibly of more practical concerns (“This is the real world. We’re men without a country, we’re enemies of the state, worst of all, we haven’t a single bean to our name.”).
Just as Jacob needs his older brother to keep his head on his shoulders, Damon’s doubting Thomas needs Jacob to reclaim his inner child, reaffirming his faith in the fairytales he’d turned his back on as a boy forced to grow up too soon. Quite frankly, that’s the same sweet dollop we derived from Johnny Depp’s relationship with Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland, and the syrupy sentiment doesn’t feel any less sickly sweet with the reiteration. Wasn’t stealing character, plot, and incident from one Depp vehicle shameless enough without Gilliam lifting themes from another? This slash and grab creative process echoes the chaotic disorder on screen. The hokey tone of hucksterism the movie adopts, while still sentimentally asking us to believe in fairies, undercuts The Brothers Grimm, leaving it torn in two different directions, tugged between the childlike whimsy of Jacob’s yin and the post-modern cynicism of Will’s yang, without ever achieving a median tone between those opposing extremes. It fails to achieve balance on other fronts as well. The movie’s vulgar humor is too puerile and uncouth for adults and its blood curdling horrors far too heavy for the kiddie crowd, for instance. Snow White has been twisted into a tale of terror here.
It’s fun to check off the post-modern nods to fairy tales everyone is familiar with. The Brothers Grimm makes a Herculean effort to cross reference them all, from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White (both of whom could only be resurrected by the kiss of true love), to Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and The Frog Prince, but their haphazard inclusion is strictly as touchstones, adhering the sprawling story to its central premise like silly putty. Rather than building them up into running gags, they’re tossed off for cheap effect and a quick laugh. They should form the movie’s emotional core but these stray threads of thought aren’t securely woven into its structure the way Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night were Shakespeare in Love’s. Mashed up and squished all together, they never seem to have gotten beyond the brainstorming stage. They feel tacked on rather than integral to the plot. This movie is mixing its metaphors very badly.
The Brothers Grimm acknowledges more modern fairytales, too, specifically the aforementioned Sleepy Hollow, with its similar witch, windmill, flashbacks to a blissful childhood presided over by a loving, long lost parental figure, and drab, darkened village haunted by superstitions, like all those Bavarian burgs in Universal horror films of the thirties and forties, shivering in the shadow of Frankenstein’s castle. Just as Ichabod was in the Burton film, the Grimm’s are sent to the village of Marbaden to ferret out what they are led to believe is a very real murderer at work (“Nine times out of ten there’s a human perpetrator.”), only to have their skeptical disbelief brought increasingly into question. I detected one overt homage to The Wizard of Oz, when the relieved miller ran off ecstatically rejoicing that “Our witch is dead!” and a more offhanded one to The Lord of the Rings, with the appearance of a shiny gold band that seemed to have precious little to do with the proceedings. The enchanted forest in the equally acerbic Shrek was also inhabited by fairytale creatures, including the Gingerbread Man, while the old Mill Witch and the scenes of our intrepid heroes lost in the woods recall The Blair Witch Project. The queen’s ornate headdress resembles Maleficent’s similar, devil-horned one from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty cartoon, and the movie may even be indexing Hitchcock’s The Birds, with that flock of two and twenty hovering menacingly about. Personally, I was put in mind of the French film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, which also featured Monica Bellucci, by the period setting and even more so when the reverse engineered werewolf (he sheds his skin to turn back into a man here rather than vice versa), recognized his relative by scent, staying him from killing her. The importance of the color red to ‘those we do not speak of,’ in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village was referenced in the Little Red Riding Hood scene. That cape makes her stand out as starkly against the curtain of green foliage as the red tinted little girl did in Schindler’s List. She’s a moving target.
There’s a strain of Dragonslayer in that this preternatural predator exclusively victimizes little girls, a fact that isn’t made immediately clear. We’re told simply that the ‘children’ of Marbaden are going missing, without any codicil as to gender, so when a little girl runs up to the Grimms in the village (“And a fine wife he’ll make some lucky man.”), we have no way of knowing why she’s dressed like a little boy. The joke falls flat. Her clothes just seem like part of the rustic charm. We don’t realize her parents have dressed her that way as a protective measure, the same reason Valerian disguised herself as a man so her name wouldn’t come up for the lottery of virgin sacrifices in Dragonslayer. Lena Headey’s Angelika also dresses androgynously, in the furs and pelts of a trapper, and probably for the same reasons, but her attire also serves to underline the fact that she’s not your traditional damsel in distress from fairy lore. She’s been included in the cast specifically to give little girls in the audience a more admirable, self-assertive heroine to identify with. Having lost her entire family, she’s a woman who lives sparingly, off the bounty of the land, and has learned to take care of herself.
It’s Angelika who lights out after Jacob’s possessed stallion after all, when it abducts Elsie. But her very self-sufficiency means that one vital plot point makes no sense at all. Jacob, who’d earlier turned down Will’s offer to share the two lusty bar wenches he escorts to his room (“There he goes. Mythical damsels and princesses are all he’s really concerned with… Beans, Jake, beans! Aw, you’re an idiot!” his brother had chided) is attracted to Angelika, though from what we’ve been told and know of his nature (his desire to save women stems from his guilt over not having saved his sister as a child), there’s no reason he should be. Why is she the first non-fictional heroine to arouse his interest? It doesn’t fit his psychological profile. Like those earlier Terry Gilliam heroes in The Fisher King and Brazil, Jake cherishes dreams of rescuing helpless princesses, but this earthy woman is about as far from the ethereal damsels in distress he fantasizes about as it’s possible to get. She doesn’t need rescuing. She can take care of herself better than he can.
Will doesn’t appear much smitten with Angelika either, treating her as condescendingly as Henry Higgins did Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (“We’ll pay you money, beads, pretty shiny things from the village,” he offers when bartering to buy her services), but the brother’s rivalry is supposed to be exacerbated by their mutual attraction to her (“It’s not about the story, it’s about her. You want to rescue her,” Will accuses). Angelika is supposed to be the femme fatale that drives a wedge between the brothers, but the only relationship this movie is really concerned with is the estranged one between the Grimms themselves (“Such brotherly love,” Monica Bellucci’s mocking Mirror Queen coos, “such sacrifice.”).
Redeemed torturer Cavaldi claims he remembers how this archetypal story of Cain slaying Abel should end (putting him one up on the other 99.9% of humanity- Abel never rose from the dead), but it’s Jacob’s own earlier words we’re recalling when he leans over his brother’s prostrate form, intending to restore him to life with the kiss of “the truest of true love.” Is he supposed to be Prince Charming and Will Sleeping Beauty, or is Will supposed to be Snow White? Things have become so metaphorically muddled by this point it’s impossible to say. What I am sure of is that, though a summer release, for those catching up with the movie at home on DVD, in the aftermath of Brokeback Mountain, this scene will have a post-modern edge all its own.
Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, art director Keith Pain and set decorator Judy Farr have devised some eye popping set pieces, such as that tree tower that dominates the primeval forest surrounding it, as imposing as an ancient California Redwood (“The Christian king built all this in the middle of the forest,” we’re informed. “They cut it down. It grew back.”), but the movie seems burdened by them. It’s over cluttered with visual riches, full to overflowing with half realized ideas; it’s an overstuffed treasure trove. Things whiz by us at such a hectic pace on this junky, queasy roller coaster ride, we don’t have time to fully appreciate them, or luxuriate in their fanciful beauty. There’s a visual clamor to it all that’s dizzying, but The Brothers Grimm still feels somehow haphazard and incomplete, as if Jacob hadn’t found the right end to his story after all. This movie is meant to be a head trip, a peek inside a slightly warped mind that’s quite disturbing (“This is your world, Jake, just you. Finish the story.”), and, with its swoony visual sensibility, everything’s been designed to mirror this maxim.
The Brothers Grimm is at its best when it’s furthest away from the derivative. Many of the movie’s most imaginative and inventive moments are the purely fabricated ones, such as when the axe wielding woodsman feeds Jacob’s horse a handful of itsy bitsy spiders, and the surreal subsequent image of the stallion bowing low before its master (these memorable images are from no Grimm story I’ve ever heard tell of, but they possess the genuine flavor of fairytale enchantment), the queen locked away in her ivory tower, grown increasingly out of touch with reality and running her long fingernails like a comb through her hair, the twelve graves, evenly spaced around her impregnable fortress like a clock face (the inference of pagan practices and sacrificial rights suggests something more diabolical is going on here than actually turns out to be the case), the abducted little girl, bedecked in flower wreath and floating in the fountain of youth like a real life recreation of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia painting, desperate Jacob jumping from the tower using the withered Rapunzel’s white, shroud-like tresses as a bungee cord. Or how about that bizarre scene where the Gingerbread Man slowly materializes in stages, first plucking the eyes from the latest victim, her face a blank putty mask, having been wiped clean of all its features, then waddling slowly after the screaming, sightless girl as she runs about in blind terror, intending to appropriate her other traits. It’s both comical and creepy at the same time, the Gingerbread Man not resembling the typical conception of a cookie dough cutout, but a blobbish figure of globular horror, comprised of slimy muck. He’s a tar baby who appears to have strayed in from the cast of Flubber, or perhaps a toasty descendant of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, but the special effect devised to animate him is unconvincing, as is the one of the wolf. Bring back the good old days of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, or at least concede us some substantial, solid looking animatronics to share the actor’s screen space, so that the shadows fall right. The Muppets may have looked like stuffed socks, but they had one trait totally lacking from these soulless digital effects – the priceless gift of individualized personalities. As computer graphics advance to an astonishing degree of sophistication, character development has not kept pace. It’s not only been arrested, but retrogressed back to one-dimensional flatness. The Gingerbread Man may not resemble a cookie cutout, but this holographic image comes off as indistinguishable as one.
Though I can see how the producers may have miscalculated, Terry Gilliam’s simply the wrong craftsman for this work. He brings the wrong tone to it. The cult director’s earlier dabblings in fantasy past (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), present (The Fisher King) and future (Brazil) would seem to have strongly recommended him for this project, but his approach to that material was always caustic and acerbic. He tries to inject a similar post-modern edginess into his historical fairytale here, the same way Tim Burton did in Sleepy Hollow, but is only successful in spots. Unlike Burton, who would’ve been the ideal choice to direct this movie, Gilliam wants to ground his ethereal material too firmly in the factual, actually trying to inject a socio-political take on unfolding events.
The French occupation is staged as a reenactment of the original invasion by the Christian king, who “destroyed the forest people. Burnt them to death in their caves.” Just as that conqueror imposed his religion on the pagans he suppressed, the ‘enlightened’ Napoleon also intends imposing his supposedly superior way of life on this backward, superstitious province, even by force if necessary. “New citizens of France, vanquish your darkest fears. Burn the forest,” commands his representative, Delatombe, leaving actor Jonathan Pryce in the unenviable position of typifying the same type of totalitarian regime he was a victim of in Brazil. Déjà vu. The French are depicted as cultural imperialists here, and the movie seems to go out of its way to arouse xenophobic feeling against them. When Pryce’s foppish, bewigged manservant calls Jacob a ‘barbarian’ in his inimitable accent, for instance, we’re put in mind of France’s national stereotype of Americans abroad as uncouth, loud, vulgar, uncivilized. Irony is, in having Napoleonic France serve as whipping boy for the director’s distaste for totalitarian regimes, The Brothers Grimm errs on the side of Germany, the future cradle of Nazism.
Cyclical history is repeating itself, only this time the forest, possessed by the souls of those dearly departed, fights back. There’s the suggestion that the land, nature itself, has been turned upside down, like Birnam Wood which impossibly advanced on the castle of Macbeth, coming to life, rising up as it were (“We are outmaneuvered, outnumbered, outfinagled by some German force which threatens your superiority.”), in rebellion against the unnatural presence of occupying French troops on foreign soil. “Our people always knew the forest was enchanted, but it’s never turned against us,” the villagers of Marbaden state, “Not until now. Not until the French occupation.” The earth wells up to spit out the invading hordes, uprooting itself the same way the ancient trees did in The Two Towers, their entwining, spidery tendrils like extensions of the grasping queen’s mummified talons (she uses them to reach out from beyond the grave of her ivory tomb). Much as the brothers Grimm become the heroes they’d always claimed to be, the forest ends up routing the occupying army, just as they’d fibbed to the generale that it would (“The longer this goes on, more Germans are going to talk like her, then arm themselves, then organize, then your problem shall not be one forest anymore, it shall be a nation!”).
Like Will, who easily worms his way into their good graces (“1792- very good year. Vive la revolution!” he placates, straddling the political fence as easily as Humphrey Bogart did in Casablanca, even having the band strike up the Marseille), the ‘enlightened’ French represent the skeptics here (“Your shining examples illuminate this dark German forest of ignorance and superstition.”). The Germans on the other hand (“ignorant peasants who cling to their folklore because it gives them strength”), are Jacob’s people, true believers. But not even this theme is developed or sufficiently worked into the storyline, making the introduction of the Napoleonic Wars seem largely superfluous, an unpleasant accident of time and place. There’s also one glaring historical anachronism in the conception of Cavaldi.
Peter Stormare, who so memorably fed Steve Buscemi to that wood chipper as the axe-wielding Paul Bunyon of Fargo, is again stuck playing an unsavory embodiment of yore, in this case of the Spanish Inquisition, but why is this Italian running around torturing people and burning them at the stake as if it were still the Middle Ages? Gilliam appears to be stuck in the Medieval mindset of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dumping The Brothers Grimm into the midst of a dead serious battle campaign links fantasy far too strongly with reality. Rather than rollicking about in Neverland, we seem to have stumbled onto the History channel, minus much explication to explain to the kids and the non-historians among us, what exactly the fuss is all about. It anchors a subject that should remain lighter than air, its head in the clouds, dragging this flight of fancy back down to earth with a thud. The Brothers Grimm goes over like a lead balloon. Truth indeed proves much more terrible than fiction.
Consequently, scenes that should seem whimsical come across as mean spirited, if not downright sadistic. They’re gleeful in their brutishness, delighting in their own cruelty. Grimm fairytales, which were deemed unsuitable for children when first published (an antique approximation of the R-rating), are frequently grotesque, disturbing, macabre, even Freudian, but as little moral parables, as far removed from the everyday as Bible stories, they never seemed this offensive or threatening before. Similarly, we’re used to seeing cartoon characters, most of whom can be traced back to their archetypal sources in Grimm fairytales, clocked, brained, beaned onscreen, but since they can always be counted on to rebound like elastic, the extreme violence comes across as both surreal and safe. To borrow an overworked adage, ‘if you bend it, it’s funny, if you break it, it’s not so funny anymore.’
Gilliam makes the mistake of laying his scene in too concrete a context, a tangible historical world full of grime, grit, mud, blood, war and death. For the most part, it strikes us as being too real to laugh at, too real for comfort. There’s no sense of fun in the unnecessarily numerous torture chamber scenes or the even more off-putting one where a kitten is sliced in the whirring blades of a fan, its flesh and blood splattering the face of Delatombe, who licks it off (a crude reference to ‘eating pussy’ as smarmy as the ones to ‘giving head’ were in Sleepy Hollow). They just seem gruesome. They are, indeed, too Grim. In instances like this, we’re not touring the minds of the brothers anymore (a nice place to visit, though we wouldn’t want to live there), but getting a stomach turning taste of the sick and twisted humor of director Terry Gilliam. ~3/2006